We each experience different forms of stress in our lives.
Stress can range from acute time-limited stressors, like public speaking, to brief life stressors, like academic examinations.
Stress can also be more chronic, due to loss of a job, a relationship, or debilitating illness.
How stress impacts the immune response differs depending on the type of stress and its duration.
Because the immune system is linked to other systems in the body like the endocrine system, gastrointestinal system, and nervous system, its response will be modified depending on the total input that it receives.
Modifying the immune system in times of stress provides many physiological benefits to help the body thrive. However, prolonged exposure to stress can eventually lead to negative health outcomes.
How Can Stress Benefit the Immune System?
Our bodies are built to adapt to stress.
In order to prepare the body for survival, the human immune system redistributes its immune molecules to accommodate for the perceived level of attack.
During acute stress, the body prepares for potential trauma and infection, redistributing immune t-cells to the skin in order to enhance the immune defense.
This system is beneficial for us to quickly adapt to a cut and possible infection, enhancing our survival.
How Can Stress Negatively Affect the Immune System?
Today, many of us experience a different kind of stress that is less intense but chronic.
Prolonged stressors like unemployment, caring for a sick loved one, or a stressful job, have been found to down-regulate both the innate and adaptive immune responses over time.
During chronic stress, we also see a shift in immune cells, with a suppression in t-helper 1 cells and an activation of t-helper 2, involved in humoral immunity.
The shift results in a chain of events that exacerbate allergy and autoimmune disease.
Together, these immune responses lead to an imbalance in the ability of the body to fight incoming infection, while exacerbating potential chronic illnesses through overactivation of the humoral response.
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Ways to Manage Chronic Stressors:
The key to keeping the immune system balanced and able to fight infections is managing stress. How we do that is through daily practices that help us slow down, ground, and work through the challenges of life.
We each have our own unique ways of releasing stress and relaxing. A few of our favorites include:
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment.
Brief mindfulness meditations have been found to reduce self-reported psychological stress in participants, and lead to greater resiliency and to an improved cortisol (stress hormone) response. Mindfulness can be as simple as going for a walk and noticing the sky, trees, and things around you. It can also be a journaling practice or breathing exercise. The important thing is to make it work for you.
Get enough sleep
Sleep plays a foundational role in managing our natural circadian rhythm and it allows the body to naturally heal and repair on a cellular level.
Getting at least 7-8 hours of good quality sleep is essential for the body to properly function.
Why not read our tips for a better sleep to learn more?
Spending time with friends and loved ones has been found to be an important indicator of longevity and it reduces the risk of a number of diseases.
Share dinners with friends, phone a distant friend, or go see a show. Most of us are looking to connect at a deeper level and can benefit from meaningful interactions.