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Chronic Stress and the Immune System: How Stress Makes It Easier to Get and Stay Sick

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November 3, 2016 | Published by


In this day it is impossible to not experience stress on a daily basis. Even though our body is exceptionally unique in the way it deals with stress, it does not tolerate chronic stress well. During stressful situations, our adrenal glands produce cortisol in response to stress and low level of glucose in the blood. This raises the blood sugar and suppresses the immune system in order to assist with the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Chronic stress increases the production of cortisol, which mobilizes glucose out of the cells, raising the glucose level above the limit. This interferes with the HPA activity and consequently might lead to obesity and other associated metabolic syndromes.

What kind of stress are we talking about?  In short, all of it. However, not all stress is the same. According to Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center, the two type of the stressors are psychological and physiological.

 Examples of psychological stressors:

  • Frustration
  • Life transitions
  • Changes in one’s career status
  • Changes or challenges with close relationships
  • Change in family roles and routines
  • Returning from deployment and/or combat
  • Loss
  • Financial or legal issues
  • Navigating the medical system
  • Completing administrative tasks

Examples of physiological stressors:

  • Wound, illness, or injury
  • Pain
  • Surgery
  • Treatment
  • Rehabilitation
  • Side effects of medication
  • Body aches, headaches

Here is how chronic stress directly affects the immune system:

  • Can lead to age-related conditions  such as cardiovascular disease, arthritis, type 2 diabetes and mental decline
  • Reduces the process of healing wounds
  • Slows down the immune response against pathogens
  • Can negatively affect the components of the immune system that battles with diseases such as cancer

How does stress make it harder to recover from an illness?

When the body is under stress, the adrenal glands produce cortisol to accord with the situation. Cortisol also reduces the rate at which lymphocytes multiply and accelerates their programmed cell death to further protect the body from this overreaction. In fact, when cortisol is elevated during the alarm reaction , there is almost a complete disappearance of lymphocytes from the blood. That is why your immune system is suppressed when you are under chronic stress.

During this relapse period where the body is adjusting to the stress, the immune system does not have the energy and the resources to fight an infection. This can lead to an illness or even a longer recovery time from a previous illness. It is crucial to manage the stress in order to have a healthy functioning immune system. There are many ways that one can lower and better manage stress, including:

  • Identify the source of the stress and positively navigate it (also known as reframing)
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, taking long walks
  • Exercise
  • Connect with friends, participating in positive and fun activities
  • Keep a daily stress journal. Sometimes just writing about what is stressing you out brings relief.
  • Set (realistic) goals to focus on
  • Develop changes in your lifestyle to reduce the stress (like eliminating energy robbers)

For more on stress management, read this blog article.

Image Credit: Flickr user R N

References:

Priyadarshini, Sushri and Aich, Palok. (2012, September). Effects of Psychological Stress on Innate Immunity and Metabolism in Humans: A Systematic Analysis. Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0043232

Bierma, Paige. The Immune System and Stress. Retrieved from https://consumer.healthday.com/encyclopedia/stress-management-37/stress-health-news-640/the-immune-system-and-stress-645924.html

Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center. Understanding Stress During Recovery From a Wound, Illness or Injury. Retrieved from http://www.med.navy.mil/sites/nmcphc/Documents/health-promotion-wellness/wounded-ill-and-injured/PEW-for-WII/WII_PEW_NavigatingStressInfo_Whole.pdf


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