If you’re struggling with stress and anxiety, you probably also come down with more than your fair share of illness too.
This isn’t just bad luck; according to science, there is a pretty strong link between stress and immunity. Here’s how stress can affect your health and immunity and some tips on what you can do to cope with chronic stress.
How Does Stress Affect Immunity?
Under normal circumstances, your immune system protects you by tackling bacteria, viruses and other nasties that could make you ill.
Stress affects your body’s ability to fight off these viruses and bacteria, which makes you more likely to be ill. As a double whammy, it also makes it that bit harder to recover, meaning it takes you longer to feel fully well again.
As part of the “fight or flight” response, stress encourages hormones to be released. .This would be great if you were dealing with a genuine threat to your life that required you to get away quickly but it’s bad news when the threat is a bit more mundane.
One of the hormones that is released as part of the “fight or flight” response is cortisol, which is linked to inflammation.
This should only be a temporary effect and once the “threat” is over, hormone production and systems in the body should return to normal fairly quickly.
But with chronic stress, it can mean that the “fight or flight” stress response is switched”on” most or all of the time. And this leads to inflammation in the body.
As you’ve probably heard, chronic inflammation is said to be a factor in a wide range of diseases and conditions, including heart disease and cancer.
Chronic inflammation can pave the way for conditions such as arthritis, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, lupus, fibromyalgia and psoriasis.
Cortisol also reduces the number of lymphocytes in your body. These are the white blood cells that would normally help to fight infection. Having low levels of these can mean that you pick up every cough and cold going and are prone to developing cold sores, for example.
In one study, researchers asked 276 people about the things that had stressed them out in the past year. They then gave them nasal drops containing the common cold virus to see who was most affected. Almost 40% of the participants did indeed catch a cold, and those who had reported having a lot of stress were twice as likely to be ill.
In the second part of the same study, researchers also looked at the inflammatory response of 79 participants before they exposed them to the cold virus. They found that those who had a weak inflammatory response to begin with also produced more inflammatory cytokines when they got ill.
Depression and Mental Health
It’s not just stress that can deplete your immunity. Studies have shown that depression is also heavily linked to lower immunity, especially in situations that involve chronic stress.
One study looked at depression in older caregivers and found that even mild cases reduced their immunity and this was still the case 18 months later. Researchers concluded that it isn’t how severe the depression is that affects immunity but the length of time that it’s been present.
What Can You Do to Deal With Chronic Stress?
It’s not always easy or even practical to avoid stress, especially if you suffer from a chronic health condition or care for a loved one, for example.
If you can’t avoid stress, the next best thing is to learn how to cope with it so that it’s less likely to have a big impact on your immunity.
A few things you can try include:
Relaxation remedies: The mind-body connection is strong but you can use it in a positive way by harnessing relaxation techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, visualisation and guided imagery.
Overcoming negative thinking: Negative thinking and anxiety tend to go hand in hand and can cause a lot of stress. Studies have shown that people with a positive outlook on life have better immunity so there are a lot of big benefits attached to overcoming negative thinking.
Building a strong support network: In recent years, loneliness has been flagged as one of the biggest risk factors for chronic ill health – potentially even more so than obesity and smoking. People with stronger support networks have been shown to benefit from better health and immunity.
Eat well: Eating a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables is recommended for tackling stress but there are also foods that you should limit as much as possible. Refined sugars, caffeine, alcohol and processed foods are all best restricted as they can promote inflammation.
Exercise regularly: Exercise encourages feel good endorphins, which can boost your mood and it’s also a good way to relieve stress. There are benefits for immunity too as being physically active increases your body’s white blood cells, which can be depleted by stress. High intensity physical activity has the most effect on white blood cells.
Have some fun: Laughter also increases your body’s white blood cells and helps to reduce stress hormones.