How Managing Stress Can Support Your Immune System
Some level of stress is a normal part of our day-to-day lives. Whether we're running late for an appointment, delivering an important work presentation, or studying for a big exam – we can all feel overwhelmed at times.
When you feel stressed, your adrenal glands produce and release cortisol, the 'stress hormone'. This is beneficial in the short term to help your body deal with a stressful situation.
However, if you are constantly feeling stressed (also known as chronic stress) – whether because of work, a difficult relationship, financial problems, or other reasons – your cortisol levels can remain elevated on a more permanent basis, and this can negatively impact your health.
How Stress Affects The Immune System
The immune system is a complex and dynamic network of organs, cells, and tissues that help your body stay healthy. Immune cells, or white blood cells, move in and out of tissues and organs to help the body fight potentially harmful pathogens such as bacteria and viruses.
There are 5 major types of white blood cells, all of which play different roles in mounting a healthy immune response:
- Monocytes have a longer lifespan than many white blood cells and help to break down bacteria.
- Lymphocytes create antibodies to fight against bacteria, viruses, and other potentially harmful invaders.
- Neutrophils kill and digest bacteria and fungi. They are the most numerous type of white blood cell and your first line of defense when infection strikes.
- Basophils are small cells that seem to sound an alarm when infectious agents invade your blood. They secrete chemicals such as histamine, a marker of allergic disease, that help control the body's immune response.
- Eosinophils attack and kill parasites and cancer cells, and help with allergic responses.
Cortisol reduces the production of white blood cells such as lymphocytes, which in turn suppresses the immune system. Because stress reduces the immune system's ability to fight pathogens, it makes the body more susceptible to infection and illness.
When too much cortisol is produced, as in the case of chronic stress, the body can become resistant to it. This can cause cortisol to accumulate within the body, which increases inflammation.
A short-term inflammatory response is beneficial to help the body fight pathogens. However, when inflammation persists for longer periods, also known as chronic inflammation, it can suppress the immune system, increasing the risk for many chronic diseases such as heart disease.
Stress can also affect immune health if the coping strategies include poor habits such as alcohol consumption, smoking, lack of sleep or exercise, or poor dietary choices. For example, a research study done by Loma Linda University found that the effectiveness of white blood cells decreased up to 50% 1-2 hours after the participants ate sugar, with the effects lasting up to five hours!
Incorporating these scientifically-proven strategies into your routine are effective ways to cope with stress to support your mental and physical health, including your immune system.
5 Simple Ways To Cope With Stress
1. Incorporate daily movement
Movement can be a very effective strategy for managing your stress response. Whether you are exercising at home, lifting weights at a gym, hiking a mountain, or simply going for a power walk, physical activity of any form helps maintain healthy levels of cortisol and supports the production of endorphins, "feel-good hormones."
Endorphins are neurotransmitters that elevate your mood and contribute to the feelings of happiness and euphoria that many people experience after exercising, also known as "runner's high."
Moving your body also improves blood circulation, which helps your immune cells get to where they need to be to do their job efficiently.
Finally, physical activity can help you get your mind off negative feelings. By concentrating on body movements, you are less likely to think about things that may be causing you to worry, and instead, your body focuses on physical tasks that in turn give you energy and clarity.
2. Practice mindful breathing exercises
When someone tells you to 'take a deep breath' when you're feeling stressed, there's a physiological reason for it. Mindful breathing is a technique that involves paying close attention to your breath and intentionally changing your inhale-to-exhale ratio. For example, taking longer and deeper inhales, holding your breath for a few seconds, and slowly exhaling all the air out.
Mindful breathing can help you regulate your emotions and achieve a sense of calm and control. It allows your body to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for putting the body in a state of relaxation. This supports a steady heart rate and healthy blood pressure, which in turn promotes a feeling of calm.
Many mindfulness practices, such as meditation and yoga, incorporate breathing exercises, which can be extremely beneficial for coping with stress and allowing the body to relax.
3. Get adequate sleep
The relationship between stress and sleep is bidirectional – not getting adequate sleep can increase stress levels, and being stressed can impair sleep quality.
Research indicates that stress levels are higher in sleep-deprived individuals and getting a good night's sleep – between 7 and 9 hours every night – can help manage stress.
During sleep, your brain and body recharge. Thus, sleep deprivation can impair mood, making you more irritable and more likely to feel stressed. Adequate sleep can also help your ability to process stressful situations.
4. Eat a nutritious diet
A balanced diet comprised of nutrient-dense foods supports a healthy immune system, inflammatory response, and positive mood and mental state. In contrast, highly processed 'junk' foods, which have poor nutritional value and are high in refined sugars, can negatively impact mood and energy levels.
Limiting the consumption of non-nutritious foods while increasing your intake of nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, and lean proteins, is a great strategy for promoting long-term health.
Additionally, learning the best vitamins and minerals for a healthy immune system and how to incorporate them into your diet can be an excellent way to fill any dietary gaps and support resilient immunity.
5. Take a stress management supplement
In addition to consuming a nutritious diet, there are certain nutrients that can be especially beneficial for coping with stress and supporting a healthy immune system.
For example adaptogens are a unique category of herbs that help mitigate the effects of stress on the body. These can be found in stress management supplement blends like Blueshift Calm, which contains ashwagandha, rhodiola, and lemon balm to help the body maintain healthy cortisol levels and promote a feeling of relaxation.
Calm also contains amino acids such as L-theanine, GABA, and glycine, which help regulate mood, plus a B vitamins which help support normal function of the nervous system and energy levels. This delicious, drinkable supplement blend also packs adrenal-supporting nutrients such as taurine to help manage chronic stress.
Keep Calm And Carry On
You will inevitably feel stressed on occasion. Stress can serve as a motivator in some scenarios and should be a temporary feeling. However, when stress levels are consistently high, it can significantly impact your immune system and your body's ability to mount a healthy response to potentially harmful pathogens.
Identifying the source of your stress and using healthy ways to cope with it can be a powerful skill to help support your mental and physical health. By adopting some simple stress-coping strategies you can respond in a healthier way to stressful situations and, in turn, support your immune health.