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How Stress Suppresses Your Immune Function


October 8, 2015 | Published by

Acute stress temporarily enhances the front line immune defenses that help protect you from infection due to injuries – like bites or scratches received in “fight or flight” – but suppresses all other immune activity. During the stress response, your energy and resources are focused on escaping the immediate stressor, not on dealing with less immediate threats like the flu virus or cancer cells. Chronic stress – the type most people experience these days – suppresses immune function overall, as does adrenal fatigue.

Adrenal stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol trigger 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. If you are facing a lion, your body will quickly shift its energy resources from less immediate threats (like fighting cancer or a cold) to help you survive the critical danger in front of you.

With chronic stress, this cortisol-related decrease in immune function can leave you more susceptible to colds, flu and other infections, and potentially make you 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 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 exhausted adrenal glands to recover. To make matters worse, when people are stressed, they often do a poorer job of taking care of themselves. This means less laughter, sleep, exercise and healthy eating, and more smoking, drinking, drugs and junk food – all of which can affect your immune system for the worse.

This also means that with both a stressful lifestyle and/or chronic stress, you may be more susceptible to whatever is going around, take longer to bounce back, and over time may become more prone to allergies and vulnerable to more serious health problems related to lowered or imbalanced immune function.

Consequently, whether your adrenal glands are overworked or functioning optimally, chronic stress can have a negative impact on your immune function, making staying well an extra challenge. Managing your stress, supporting your adrenal glands and promoting strong immune function can significantly enhance your ability to stay well.

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