ESTIMATED READING TIME 4 MINUTES
Stress Awareness Week aims to highlight how stress can affect your health, as well as championing effective stress management strategies. According to the Mental Health Foundation, almost three-quarters of the UK population were so stressed at some point over the last year they felt unable to cope. Were you one of them?
The modern epidemic of stress doesn’t do you any favours.
Often, stress can end up simply feeling normal, and you might power through stressful times without acknowledging or dealing with it. Your immune system, your body’s natural defender, is very aware of when you’re stressed, however, and it’s incredibly sensitive to any stressful situation.
In this article you’ll discover how chronic stress can negatively affect your immune system, making you more vulnerable to picking up colds and flu and even leading to autoimmune diseases.
Stress is perfectly natural – it’s any kind of threat perceived by your body, causing it to react to try and protect you. It does this by releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These cause physiological changes to your body, allowing you to escape from the stress or fight back, whichever is most appropriate.
All this is fine if the stress only goes on for a short while because these responses were only ever intended to be used in an emergency. The problem is nowadays stress tends to be continual, with different stresses piling up one after another. Other stress may carry on for months or years, like relationship issues or money worries. If stress hormones are released on an ongoing basis, they can damage your body, because as you now know stress hormones cause physical changes to your body.
Although short-term stress – lasting from minutes to hours – is known to actually benefit the immune system, when it drags on and becomes chronic it disrupts the immune system’s normal reaction.
Stress reduces the number of immune cells able to kill off bacteria and viruses and alters the balance between inflammatory and anti-inflammatory immune cells 1 . The release of substances promoting inflammation can be really useful to limit short-term damage in acute stress – think what happens when you hit your thumb with a hammer – but if inflammation drags on it can be incredibly damaging. In fact, uncontrolled inflammation is now thought to be at the root of practically all chronic diseases. So, you can see how a major contributor to chronic inflammation can be ongoing stress.
Meanwhile, stress causes an imbalance between the supportive and destructive immune cells, and it encourages the activity of the types of white blood cells with the job of making antibodies. This can lead to autoimmunity, when the body fails to properly distinguish between what’s dangerous and what is not, meaning it’s likely to attack innocent parts of your body by mistake.
Many people aren’t aware of the negative effects of stress on their immune system until they start experiencing negative symptoms.
The damaging effect of stress on your digestion will also hurt your immune system. You’ve probably noticed how stress can devastate your gut. Excess cortisol suppresses the production of a type of antibody called secretory IgA, involved in protecting the lining of your gut from attack by disease-causing organisms. If, due to stress, your gut lining becomes more permeable than it should be, various molecules will be allowed through into the blood when they should never be there. When these are detected by your immune system it will mount an inflammatory response. If errant substances are constantly making their way through into your blood, it’s easy to see how the result will be chronic inflammation.
Stress can directly disrupt the balance of the natural bacteria in your gut, too. These bacteria interact very closely with your immune system. They educate immune cells and control their activity, so any imbalances in your microbiome will be felt in your immune system.
The beauty of being able to test the levels of your stress hormones with functional testing is you can easily discover where they are at compared to how they should be. Because you are an individual, your hormonal picture will be slightly different from everyone else’s. They take the guesswork out of how your body is reacting to stress. A simple saliva test will evaluate your cortisol levels at various times of the day because this hormone should fluctuate in a regular pattern.
Following a detailed consultation, you’ll be recommended dietary, nutritional and lifestyle strategies to reduce your stress and support your immune system going forwards.
Are you concerned about how stress may be affecting your immune system? Why not book a free 15-minute discovery call to see if Functional Medicine is for you?
Please enter your details below and we will get back to you as soon as we can.
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