Stress & The Immune System

Stress & The Immune System

Having a healthy immune system means the difference between staying well, and being predisposed to picking-up any of the infections and illnesses that are going around at any given time.

That’s what is so amazing about our immune system. When it’s working well, it automatically recognises our body’s cells, and goes about doing the job of keeping us healthy by destroying things like bacteria and viruses that are not innate to our body.

I wrote about stress for the inaugural issue of Holistic Living Magazine, where I made the comment that stress is to the body what global warming is to the planet.

I then went on to say that just as there are people who can find ways to deny that global warming exists, there are also those who are good at denying the damage they’re exposing themselves to when they let stress run amok in their life.

So I’m going to pick up from where I left off by giving you another reason to make controlling the amount of stress you expose your body to on a day-to-day basis a priority.

I plan to do this by teasing out exactly what stress does to our immune system’s ability to keep us well.

The core problem here is that it’s our sympathetic nervous system that’s in play when we’re stressed. This is the state that gives rise to the classic fight or flight scenario that raises our blood sugar and heart rate, narrows our blood vessels, and activates our immune system.

This enhances our body’s clotting capacity and blunts our pain perception, which is incredibly helpful in the event of real and present danger.

But the problem is that we don’t just activate our stress response in those circumstances, but also for any number of non-life threatening reasons, such as running late for a meeting, or finding out that interest rates are going up and our mortgage is going to be unmanageable, or whatever else it is that might trigger the stress response in us.

The bottom line is that when long term stress becomes chronic, it results in high levels of cortisol circulating in our bloodstream on an ongoing basis. On the upside, cortisol functions to reduce inflammation in our body.

But on the downside, this results in the suppression of our immune system.

Which in turn increases our susceptibility to colds and other common ailments like that,as well as exposing us to an increased risk of cancer, increased risk of an assortment of gastrointestinal issues, and possibly an increased risk of autoimmune disease.

Stress & The Immune System How Does It Affect Us?

I’m going to shift gears a bit now and make this personal by talking about my husband’s experience of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CSF) which he’s been struggling with for over 20 years.

I look back in despair at all of the dark alleys he was lead down by way of misdiagnosis resulting in the prescription of medications that, at the end of the day, had no positive effect on his condition whatsoever.

More recently, he has had some relief via fact that: a) there is increasing acceptance that CFS is a real medical condition and not just ‘in the head of the patient’ as was previously believed, and b) that CFS is linked to changes in the immune system.

Recent research by the Infectious Disease Laboratory at Columbia University has added to an increasing pool of evidence that CFS can be diagnosed by increased amounts of chemical messengers called cytokines in the body of sufferers.

Cytokines are important here because they are a key part of the complex system that regulates our body’s immune response.

What this means for CFS sufferers is that their immune system does not shut down when an infection has passed in the way that it does in people who do not have CFS.

Thankfully, my husband is now being treated by an expert in the field of CSF who is not only able to work within the conventional medical establishment, but who is also willing and able to step outside of it and look at alternative options for treatment.

This doctor is one of only a few who seem to appreciate that CFS patients are not able to bounce back after an infection in the way other people do because of the large amount of cytokines in their body.

Understanding this connection between CFS and the level of cytokines in the body allows doctors to diagnose CFS much earlier than used to be the case before this connection was recognised.

This is significant because as with many other illnesses, with CSF it’s a clear case of the earlier the diagnosis, the better the prognosis.

So given that stress plays havoc with our immune system which ever way you look at it, I want to urge you to establish routines around self-care that will help to minimise stress, and enable you to handle it more effectively when ever it does arise for you.

What concerted effort in relation to self-care can do is set you up to be less reactive to the waxing and waning of circumstances, and the spiking of energy around you and within you throughout the day?

Let’s face it, life will always throw up challenges, but I want to impress on you that it’s you, and only you, who is responsible for deciding how to respond to challenging situations.

The trick here is to respond in as positive and resourceful a way as possible.

Sure enough, we all have our own particular dispositions that will predispose us to be more likely to stress about things than other people, but also it’s this point about individual responsibility that explains why exactly the same event will cause one person’s stress level to go through the roof whilst another person’s stress level will barely be affected at all.

Ultimately, it’s the intersection of our biology, our psychology, our history, our present circumstances, and our coping mechanisms that determine how we experience the things that go on in our lives.

So in the interest of supporting you to step up and take care of yourself in relation to your immune system’s ability to keep you well without being undermined by an unsustainable level of stress, I want to offer you four approaches that you can introduce into your life to minimise the extent to which stress hampers your immune system’s ability to do what it does really well when the conditions are right.

These approaches are:

 to routinely calm your system down via meditation, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, or whatever else works for you;
 to establish and maintain a supportive network of people around you;
 to maintain a diet that nourishes your body and does not contain too many artificial stimulants like caffeine, or foods that lead to excessive inflammation; and
 to understand your triggers and work out ways to manage or eliminate them.

You can find much more information on living a holistic lifestyle in these free magazines and on our YouTube channel.

jane turner

Jane Turner – Woman’s Health Expert

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