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Is Stress Literally Making You Sick?


October 4, 2016 | Published by

In my clinical experience, patients who are “continually sick” with infections are the ones who have a tendency to suffer from long term low-grade stress. Stress affects the whole body, but is the immune system that is particularly affected by chronic low-grade stress. In fact, stress-related problems are the root cause of 75 percent to 90 percent of doctor visits.

Most people today associate stress with worry, but stress has a much broader definition to your body. I have always noted that patients don’t generally see themselves as living under much stress, or feeling stressed. Any kind of change, whether it be emotional, environmental, an illness, hormonal or just pushing yourself too hard, can be stressful to your body. Even positive events, such as getting a promotion at work or taking a vacation, can be stressful and can gradually weaken your health before you realize what is happening. If you have recently experienced a change in your sleep patterns, feel fatigued, anxious or a lack of enjoyment for life, or have multiple aches and pains, it is highly likely that you are overstressed.

Research by Dr. Hans Selye, the first scientist who discovered that stress actually made people sick, found something quite amazing: animals which were simply restrained died quicker from stress than animals which were physically injured. How does this relate to humans? One example is women who are living in a situation of constraint, such as a new born baby or perhaps in an unhappy relationship, tend to feel constrained. The same goes for the teacher trying to teach a class of unruly students, or the air traffic controller with too many decisions to make under high pressure. These high pressure, high stress situations often leave people feeling trapped with no escape.

Research has found that psychological stress in human beings can take a hefty toll on the immune system by reducing the concentration of cytokines, proteins that help to ward off infections. Cytokines are proteins that are produced by cells of the immune system in order to regulate the body’s response to disease and infection. It was recently discovered that people under chronic low-grade stress had above normal levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), an immune-system protein that promotes inflammation and has been linked with heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, severe infections and certain cancers. It appears that stress increases levels of IL-6, which in turn accelerates a variety of age-related diseases.

Stress increases your chances of an infection

In one study, skin wounds on the arms of women who had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol had lower levels of key compounds released by the body to mediate healing. This means stress may make it easier for germs to infect skin wounds. In another study, investigators created skin wounds in mice that were exposed to stressful living conditions. The researchers then applied Streptococcus bacteria to the wounds, and compared the healing rates of the stressed mice with those of mice with skin wounds that were also exposed to the bacteria but did not undergo the same levels of stress.

Mice that had been stressed out prior to wounding and infection showed a 30% delay in wound healing at 3 and 5 days compared with the mice that were not stressed, the report indicates. In addition, the investigators found that after 5 days the stressed mice had 100,000 times more opportunistic bacteria in their wounds than the non-stressed mice. Seven days after the bacteria exposure, about 85% of the wounds in the stressed mice were infected, versus about 27% of the wounds in the non-stressed mice. In this study, stress increased the rate of wound infection by threefold. Stress disrupts the body’s equilibrium, which significantly impairs its ability to control and eradicate bacterial infection during wound healing.

Stress changes the makeup of your immune system

Psycho-neuroimmunology is a whole new field that studies the effects of psychological stress on the immune system. Scientists in this area have demonstrated alterations in the normal function of immune cells in animals during times of stress. For example, excessive physical stress changes your immune cell profile. Increased upper respiratory tract infections occur in athletes who over-train, and a decreased cell-mediated immunity has been demonstrated in such athletes.Without a properly functioning immune system, your body is vulnerable to invasion by opportunistic germs such as fungi, viruses and bacteria.

Reduce (and better manage) stress to stay well

Relaxation techniques can be useful when stress becomes overwhelming. Yoga, a psycho-physical discipline, can lead to mental clarity, greater self-understanding, and a feeling of well being, along with improved physical fitness. Many people experience benefits not only because of the physical stretching and muscle strengthening but also because of the meditative state that is encouraged. Have you ever considered yoga or tai chi? They are both wonderful and will add a whole new dimension to your life.

Meditation is another technique that will allow you to calm your mind and fight stress. Meditating can help you to focus your thoughts on relaxing images or principles. It can also help you to examine your daily life and determine what activities are contributing to your stress. (More on stress management) What about the stress you cannot eliminate? Read more on managing unavoidable stress.

The bottom line is that stress shuts down either the recruitment or the function of those immune cells needed to fight infection. Dr. Wilson’s Adrenal Fatigue Program can significantly help by supporting the hormonal control of the body under-pinning stress. This highly effective protocol along with the correct dietary and lifestyle changes as outlined in Dr. Wilson’s ground breaking book entitled Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome can offer you the greatest chance of overcoming stress before it takes control and ruins your health.

dr-eric-bakker-150x150About the Author: Eric Bakker B.H.Sc. (Comp.Med), N.D, R.Hom. is a highly experienced naturopathic physician who has been in clinical practice for 27 years. Eric is passionate about improving people’s lives through proven wellness and lifestyle principles, natural medicine practice as well as public and professional practitioner education. Eric specializes in candida, psoriasis, as well as adrenal fatigue, thyroid and digestive disorders. Dr. Bakker has written one of the most comprehensive books on yeast infections called Candida Crusher. He has also written what may well be the most comprehensive Natural Psoriasis Treatment Program available. You can find more articles by Dr. Bakker on his blog at


  • Brain, Behaviour, and Immunity on line 2001;10.1006
  • Segerstrom & Miller, 2004. Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Enquiry Psychological Bulletin, 130, 4.

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