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The Effects of Stress on Immune Function and Outbreaks

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August 9, 2017 | Published by


Persistent or acute stress and trauma are some of the most common triggers for outbreaks in people with chronic immune efficacy issues. This is largely due to the regulatory control stress hormones have on immune function. Adrenal stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol activate important changes in your immune function because they have the ability to regulate every immune cell in your body.

The acute “fight or flight” stress response set off by adrenaline temporarily boosts certain aspects of innate, front-line immunity that help reduce the chance of infection from an injury sustained in the fight or flight – but also increase inflammation. Although a certain amount of cortisol is necessary to stimulate proper immune function, the elevated cortisol accompanying stress partially suppresses the deeper, adaptive aspects of immunity that protect you over the long term from disease and keep chronic infections dormant. If you hear footsteps behind you in a dark alley, your body will quickly shift its energy resources from less immediate threats (like fighting cancer or suppressing a virus) to help you survive the present threat.

With chronic stress, this cortisol-related decrease in immune efficacy can leave you more prone to recurrent outbreaks; more susceptible to colds, flu and other infections; and potentially more vulnerable to serious illness and degenerative disease down the road, as well as to the development of allergies and autoimmune disorders. If stress continues over an extended period of time, your adrenals eventually may not be able to keep up with the continued demand (adrenal fatigue) and start producing too little cortisol to stimulate optimal immune function.

Also, because cortisol is the primary anti-inflammatory agent in the body, inflammation can worsen and inflammatory conditions can flare if your adrenals do not produce enough. When stress is chronic or prolonged, both the increase in inflammation and the decrease in overall immune function can begin to adversely affect your health. Illness, in turn, is an added stress, making it harder for fatigued adrenals to recover.

In addition, when people are stressed, they often do a poorer job of taking care of themselves – less laughter, sleep, exercise and healthy eating; more smoking, drinking, drugs and junk food. All of which can affect your immune system for the worse. Consequently, whether your adrenal glands are fatigued or working optimally, chronic stress can have a negative impact on the effectiveness of immune function, making staying well and outbreak free an extra challenge. Managing your stress, supporting your adrenal glands and building strong immune function can significantly enhance your ability to stay well and your immune system’s efficacy at sustaining outbreak-free intervals.*

Herpes and Stress

Herpes is a widespread chronic infection with no known cure. After the initial infection with herpes simplex virus (HSV), outbreaks may recur with varying frequency. Physical, emotional or psychological stress can trigger an outbreak, as can changes in immune function caused by stress or another infection, such as a cold.

Some of the physiological changes that occur during stress, primarily cortisol secretion by the adrenal glands, have been shown to suppress a broad spectrum of both humoral and cellular immunological responses. Suppression of the immune system can lead to activation of herpes virus, and both stress (increased cortisol) and adrenal fatigue (decreased cortisol) can suppress the immune system.

Research has shown that herpes outbreaks increase in frequency with stresses such as strong emotions, trauma, sunburn, illness and the prolonged use of corticosteroid drugs, especially when adrenal function is low (as it is during adrenal fatigue). The stronger the adrenals are, the better the body handles stress and the less immune suppression there is. This, in turn, lessens the likelihood of a herpes outbreak being precipitated by stress. For these reasons, people experiencing adrenal fatigue are likely to suffer more herpes outbreaks.

Conversely, as a chronic infection, herpes is a continuing body burden that can contribute to adrenal fatigue. This may lead to more frequent outbreaks and increased susceptibility to infection, as well as other difficulties associated with adrenal fatigue. Adequate adrenal support, including a healthy lifestyle, and effective stress management can be important factors in minimizing stress-related herpes outbreaks.


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