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It’s no longer a surprise to most people that chronic stress has a negative influence on optimal health. But many associate stress with high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and mental health challenges, unaware of the devastating impact chronic stress can have on immune system health.

Psychoneuroimmunology is the study of the relationship between the immune system, endocrine system and the nervous system. 

In the past 40 years,  multiple studies support the fact that stressful events and the negative emotions they generate disrupt the sensitive balance between your complex body systems which can lead to immune system dysregulation.

Why does this happen and what is needed for effective  immune system support?

Perceived Stress Impacts Immune System Function

The brain plays a critical role in how the body responds to stress.  It starts with how the stress is perceived.  This involves the intensity, severity, controllability, and predictability of the stressor.

Two major stress-signaling pathways that contribute to immune dysregulation are the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. When the brain perceives a stress, it activates the HPA axis and the sympathetic-adrenal medullary axis (SAM) which release immune function modulating hormones including cortisol, prolactin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and growth hormone. The constant release of these hormones leads to imbalances.

Type 1 and type 2 cytokines are produced by T-cells which orchestrate the immune response. Each cytokine favors a specific type of response to antigens.  Chronic stress can alter the balance between these two cytokines which induces low-grade inflammation and suppresses the immune response.

The Dangers of Chronic Inflammation 

Acute inflammation is critical in response to injury or infection. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is associated with numerous disease risks including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, and autoimmune disorders.

One possible link between chronic stress and the resulting inflammation is that prolonged stress may result in glucocorticoid receptor resistance. This creates a problem with the HPA axis function which then interferes with the correct regulation of inflammation.

Inflammation and the Immune System

When stress leads to chronic inflammation, it prevents the immune system from working in the following ways

  • Stress disrupts the inflammatory cascade necessary for the wound healing process resulting in a considerable delay to wound repair.
  • Stress can dysregulate the immune response to pathogens, suppressing the resistance to infection and increasing infection rates. (Important in these times?  Absolutely!)
  • Stress can reduce the T-cell response to antiviral vaccinations.
  • Stress can lead to the chronic activation of the HPA axis, leading to inappropriate cortisol output and neuroendocrine dysfunction contributing to type 2 diabetes; insulin resistance frequently develops during stressful events. (Blood sugar dysregulation is associated with the worst outcomes in viral infections.)
  • Stress and the resulting inflammation may alter the immune response in such a way as to increase the susceptibility to various cancers and tumor progression. 

Immune system support during stressful times.

It can be a challenge to help yourself as well as clients when chronic stress has taken a firm hold and is wreaking havoc on the immune system.  The following suggestions can help make a real difference to stress response and support immune system health:

  1. Stress starts in the brain and is related to how events are perceived.  It may not always be possible to change a circumstance, but it is always within your power to change how it is perceived. HeartMath can work wonders when it comes to settling the mind. It may not prevent the source of stress, but it will certainly help a person  gain a new perspective which can be the difference between vibrant health and illness .
  2. Download my Immune Modulation Strategies Guide. It provides information on supplementation, herbs, foods, and essential oils that support immune system health. It also contains tips for conquering the cold and flu and strategies for managing autoimmune disease.
  3. Regular exercise (at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise weekly) and maintaining a healthy weight can support stress management and immune system health simultaneously.
  4.  In my article, 7 Secrets to Hormone Balance, Energy and Mental Clarity: The Body Freedom Pillars, I share my 7 pillars that are foundational to optimal health. Giving time and attention to all 7 provides stability in even the most stressful times.
  5. Having a supportive community has been proven to be key to achieving optimal short and long-term health outcomes.  My Nutritional Endocrinology Practitioners Training (NEPT) provides a place for functional healthcare practitioners to find the support and information they need to reach the next level both personally and professionally. 

A membership in The Empowered Self-Care Lab is for anyone needing immune system support or struggling with other chronic health issues.  Members find answers as well as love, understanding, and support from a like-minded community.

My podcast episode, Clinical Management of Autoimmune Conditions, is about what you should do when you have a patient or client who presents with an autoimmune diagnosis. How should you proceed? What needs to be addressed? We speak with one of our nutritional endocrinology practitioner training graduates, Lisa Fouladi.

Comment below and share how your experience with stress and immune system dysfunction.  

References:
The Impact of Everyday Stressors on the Immune System and Health | SpringerLink
Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry – PMC
Psychoneuroimmunology – PubMed
Stress affects immunity in ways related to stress type and duration, as shown by nearly 300 studies
Exercise and the Regulation of Immune Functions – PubMed