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Things to Know About Stress and Your Immune System

Worry, anxiety, anger and frustration can cause chronic stress and more especially so during the current health emergency, where the mainstream media and politicians are bombarding our consciousness with fear and intimidation. The population is locked up in their homes, losing businesses, jobs and relationships, all the while being divided to fear a fellow human who doesn’t have the same beliefs as you. Suicide rates are exceedingly high and increased statistics are concerning. The uncertainty can crush your spirit and undoubtedly raise stress levels.

With this repetitive anxiety and fear-generating stress, your body never gets the signal to return to normal function. Succumbing to stress means the immune system’s ability to fight off antigens is much reduced. Billions of cells move through your bloodstream, transferring in and out of tissues and organs to defend you against nasty bugs and germs.

Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released when we feel threatened. And stress is a threat to the body, causing your heart to beat faster, your muscles tighten up, blood pressure rises and your breathing rate quickens. When released these stress hormones suppress the effectiveness of the immune system by lowering the lymphocyte cells that circulate through the blood, interfering with the white cell communication. White blood cells are the key players and as they move through your body they launch attacks on bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi and it is the lymphocytes that determine the immune response to infections. There are two main types of lymphocytes. T cells and B cells. If your immune system is weakened this makes you vulnerable to frequent illnesses and elevates inflammation.

B cells produce the antibodies around the cells to destroy invading viruses and bacteria.

Should the invader get inside a cell, it is the T cells that lock onto the infected cells and destroy them.

The immune system is a marvel. It keeps a record of every microbe germ it has ever defeated in the B and T cells (memory cells), so that next time it enters the body, it can be quickly destroyed. Some infections like the flu have to be battled many times as different strains evolve.

In 1984 psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser undertook a comprehensive study of assessing the T cell activity in relation to stress. She found that immune responses were especially weak in participants that felt lonely, depressed or anxious.

Stress reduces the effectiveness of the immune system and the ability to fight off the antigens is compromised. I’m sure we have all had life events that outstrip our ability to cope. A small amount of stress is ok, but over time your body can get used to having too much cortisol in the blood and thus increases the inflammation and increases the lymphocytes, putting you at risk for viruses. Even for the common cold or cold sores. High levels of inflammation mean an overworked fatigued immune system that doesn’t offer optimum protection. Under sustained long-term stress much more serious illnesses, such as gastric ulcers, cancer and heart issues can occur.

When you have these elevated stress levels for a longer period, your nervous system starts to accept this heightened level as normal and keeps generating high numbers of stress hormones, even after the stress lessens. Sometimes this calls for a health professional to assist in returning your body to a calm and balanced state.

Smoking, drinking and drug use may be addictive substances one reaches for to cope with the stress, once again compromising the immune system. A repetitive cycle occurs when your immunity weakens and generally shows as constant illness. Poor diet, a lack of exercise and chronic depression are also contributors, as is age and if you already suffer from an illness.

Stress also affects the digestive system and the circulatory system, but often manifests with high blood pressure indicating a fragile immune system. Blood cholesterol levels rise under stress which could lead to blood clots in the arteries.

The CV*19 crisis is an example of a life event causing prolonged chronic stress and dishing up unpredictability, and those devastating feelings of no longer being in control of your body and your life. There is nothing more destructive than financial problems. Millions of Australians are wondering where the next mortgage payment is coming from or seriously having no money to put food on the table. Security lies in having employment and a wage. Take that away and super chronic stress will be flooding your body with chemicals and hormones.

Possible solutions may include:-

  • Try to eat a healthy diet, even though you may have limited finances.
  • Stay active and exercise.
  • Remain emotionally connected to your loved ones. Hug them constantly, because physical touch stimulates the release of dopamine, the chemical that gives us pleasure, and also serotonin known as the happy chemical.
  • Consistent sleep patterns are important. During sleep, the immune system releases proteins that are vital for fighting infections and inflammation.
  • Deep breathing is a known relaxation technique. It has a calming effect.
  • Know your stress triggers. They may be fatigue, loneliness, hunger, too many hamburgers, too many coffees, dehydration etc. Listen to your body and respond accordingly.
  • Routine is imperative to keeping your life organised and manageable. Set aside 15 minutes to just do nothing – zero, zilch, nothing. Just sit still and empty your mind.
  • Take regular breaks at work. Employees that do so are more productive and centered.
  • Keep connected with the people that matter in your life most. They will keep you grounded. Good friends help safeguard against the stress of negative events.
  • Discuss your issues. Find that sympathetic ear and vent. Cry and scream if need be, but don’t bottle up the emotions.

Look after you!! Think of yourself as the most important person on the planet. Put yourself first and be well. Your state of mind does affect your health. Emerging evidence substantiates the mind-body interaction. Loneliness and reduced social interaction cause people to experience stress more intensely and in turn that stress tramples on your immunity. Stress management and personal relationships benefit your day-to-day overall health. Understanding how psychology affects biology assists scientists to advocate the finest ways to build immunity.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, consult with medical professionals.

Lifeline Australia is a 24-hour suicide counseling service. T: 13 11 14

Beyond Blue provides information and support on stress, anxiety and depression. T: 1300 22 4636

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