Because of the way stress affects your immune system, it does more than just make you feel bad – it really can make you sick.
And the longer you’re stressed, the more your immune system is affected.
Which is a problem because, according to a survey done by the American Psychological Association in 2011, “most” Americans report having moderate to high stress levels, and 44% of people feel like their stress levels went up in the five previous years.
So, how does stress affect your immune system? Let’s look…
How the Immune System Works – When It’s Healthy
At its most basic, immunity is made up of two components: natural immunity and specific immunity.
Natural immunity is the fast response - the one that occurs minutes to hours after being activated. It’s a very general response, as well – inflammation, fever, or wound healing.
Think about it like locking the doors when you hear a noise outside. Later, you can investigate and see if you should turn on a light, open the door for the cat to come in, or call the police – but first, you respond quickly and generally.
Specific immunity is the body’s slower response. It’s the targeted attack against germs, bacteria, and parasites. Part of this specific immunity response is the production of lymphocytes – cells that help attack whatever is making you sick.
When your body’s immune system is healthy, your natural or specific immunity gets triggered and your body fights off whatever needs to be fought off. Then, you get healthy again and stay that way.
However, stress can affect your immune system so strongly that it doesn’t always work this way.
And What Happens When It’s NOT Healthy…
Studies indicate that even short-term stress can cause parts of your immune system to weaken. But the real problem arises when the immune system is exposed to long-term stress. That’s when all aspects of the immune system start to weaken – and your health can suffer.
When you’re stressed, the body produces the stress hormones. Under normal circumstances, this is a good thing. Your body identifies stress as an emergency situation, and releases the stress hormones called adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline helps boost your energy levels, and cortisol increases blood sugar and helps the brain manage the extra glucose.
But cortisol also suppresses functions that aren’t necessary in an emergency – including your immune system.
Remember the lymphocytes we mentioned earlier, the cells that help your body attack whatever it is making you sick? Well, when you’re producing large quantities of cortisol, your body lowers the amount of lymphocytes it produces, which lowers the effectiveness of your immune system.
Unfortunately, your body can’t tell the difference between a life-threatening emergency and the stress of finances, retirement, health, or any of the other daily stressors we’re exposed to every day in modern society.
So you’re under constant stress – and your body’s immune system is being weakened by the very responses that are supposed to protect you.
Indirect Impact of Stress
To make matters worse, stress can also undermine your immune system because it can lead to unhealthy choices. The more stress you’re under, the more likely you are to drink in excess, smoke, or overeat as a coping skill.
Stress can also lead to depression, which makes it difficult to exercise, eat right, or quit any of those other unhealthy behaviors.
And as if all of this wasn’t enough, the older you get, the more susceptible you become to stress affecting your immune system.
What Can Be Done About Chronic Stress
You live in a stressful world, so you’re not just going to be able to wish your stress away. At the same time, given how much stress affects your immune system, it is important to be able to manage your stress.
Like with so many other issues, there’s no one guaranteed answer, but there are good places to start:
- Make sure you exercise every day. Physical activity can go a long way in reducing stress and boosting your immune system.
- Keep in touch with friends. A social life can be a healthy distraction from stress.
- Learn to meditate, or practice deep breathing. You can actually learn to relax.
- Take a break. This is especially helpful for people who are caregivers. Remember you don’t have to do it all by yourself.
- Talk it out. There’s no shame in finding a therapist or counselor to talk to if you aren’t able to manage your stress on your own.
Stress affects your immune system in some very serious ways – but there are also ways you can counter that impact and learn to relax. Just don’t let doing so stress you out!