Chronic stress can produce immune system dysfunction and suppress our immunity.
Although our stress response has evolutionarily functioned to protect us from a threat or perceived danger, when stress is prolonged or chronic, it has a negative effect on our innate immune system, leaving us more vulnerable to illness and infections.
Acute vs. Chronic Stress
The stress response, simply stated, comes about when a stimulus (physical or psychological stressor) triggers a reaction in the brain (stress perception) that activates physiological changes in the body (stress response). Emotions, mind and body are all involved and affected.
Acute stress produces physiological changes that help us avoid danger – increasing respiratory rates, blood flow to the brain and skeletal muscles, core temperature and pain threshold – and these changes even help boost immune function, in anticipation of needing to heal a wound or injury.
But in chronic stress, when the body’s stress response is repeatedly or continually activated for long periods of time, our exposure to stress hormones is increased and prolonged, which results in negative effects on our immune system.
Immune, Endocrine, and Nervous Systems
To function effectively, our immune system requires complex interactions with the endocrine system and our central nervous system. When these interactions are disrupted by chronic stress, results can include decreased immune cell numbers and functions, and increased immunosuppressive mechanisms.
Chronic stress can increase our susceptibility to and prolong infectious illnesses. For example, chronic stress can result in a decrease in the number and activity of white blood cells and natural killer (NK) cells that we rely on to help our immune system respond to a variety of infections and invaders. Stress can even modulate antibody and T-cell responses to vaccines, both antiviral and antibacterial, which can result in delayed or decreased effectiveness.
Reducing and Addressing Stress
As stress has effects on our physical, mental and emotional health, there are things we can do to help relieve stress in all of those areas.
We can engage in physical activities that promote relaxation and wellness, such as yoga, stretching, walking or other gentle activities. These will help move our muscles and joints to release tension and move lymph throughout our bodies.
We can explore and practice mindful activities, such as positive thinking, guided meditation, relaxation techniques or learning a new skill, which will engage us mentally and expand our horizons.
We can increase social interactions with people who support our efforts to be stronger and healthier. Social engagement is a key factor in physical, mental and emotional health.
Nutritional support is also helpful. Eating a clean, balanced diet will nurture overall health and help keep all of our organs and systems working efficiently. Also, seek out herbs, minerals and vitamins that support relaxation and a healthy immune system.
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