We live, and have always lived, in an environment rich with living organisms both macro and micro. Every day we come into contact with an incredible number of micro organisms that would like to take up residence somewhere on or in our bodies. To defend us from the nearly infinite variety of microorganisms we come in contact with, our bodies have had to develop a robust and sophisticated set of defenses. We refer to these defenses collectively as our immune system.
The immune system is a dynamic and living system that we rely on at every moment to keep us healthy and balanced. Not only does it respond to environmental cues like hot and cold and day and night but also our state of mind and emotions.
Stress is something our immune systems are incredibly responsive to. Short term stress such as exercise or fasting can be beneficial to our overall immune health. However the stress produced by our modern day lifestyle is mostly chronic in nature: economic uncertainty, pressure of social comparison and of social obligations. In addition, there’s increasing exposure to toxic chemicals, nighttime artificial lighting, prolonged sitting and processed foods further contributing to ongoing chronic stress. As with short term stress, these chronic stressors activate our body’s fight or flight systems which help us survive the moment by suppressing non essential functions, like immune function. With enough stress, eventually our bodies can’t keep up with the demand and our immune system can become compromised.
One of the ways stress impacts our bodies is to trigger the production of cortisol. Cortisol mutes our awareness of symptoms we may be experiencing in our body and gives us more energy. This biological response to stress increases your chance of survival if you’re facing a mountain lion in the wild but its benefits are less obvious when dealing with an overbearing parent (for example). It also has implications for overall immune function. While cortisol is suppressing pain and giving us energy for a fight-or-flight response the more sophisticated defense systems of the immune system are also suppressed.
Is stress affecting your immune health? Look out for these 3 common signs.
Are you waking unrefreshed?
The immune system does much of its work while we’re asleep. If you’re having difficulties with sleep, be it difficulty falling asleep or difficulty waking up, sleeping lightly and/or waking often, these are often an indication that your immune system isn’t getting the chance to perform its deeper functions (1).
Here, routines are our friend. Creating a consistent bedtime routine that begins at the same time each evening and promotes relaxation will go a long way in preparing your body for sleep. Things like listening to music, dimming the lights, taking a bath, whatever eases your mind and body to relax is the goal with this routine. More ideas on improving sleep and your day/night rhythm here.
Another factor contributing to poor sleep quality is fluctuating blood sugar. Adjust your dinner to include some healthy carbohydrates such as root vegetables or have a small snack before bed like pumpkin seeds or chia pudding to see if this improves the quality of your sleep.
Do you get sick when you take days off?
You look forward to taking time off only to find that when you finally get that well deserved break you find yourself getting sick instead of being able to rest. If you’re prone to this cycle you may find that common colds, cold sores and shingles can all flare up during periods of reduced stress.
As discussed above, the release of cortisol in response to stress is intended to increase your alertness, reduce pain and inflammation in the short term. However, over days or weeks (or months) of chronic stress, these benefits are at the expense of immune function. When the body finally feels safe (lower stress), the levels of that anti-inflammatory cortisol finally come down and we can see the result of a suppressed immune system.
The key here is to make sure that the immune system is getting a chance to perform its function during the stressors of day to day life. Along with a healthy sleep routine, making time in your day for stress reducing activities such as reading or going for a walk can help provide your immune system the support it needs. Many patients who experience chronic or recurrent stress have found herbs and nutrients to support healthy cortisol helpful for immune health as well.
Are you slow to recover from illness?
You may experience this as wounds that are slow to heal, or frequent colds that come and go or don’t seem to clear up fully.
As with the previous two questions, good sleep is critical to supporting strong healing and recovery (2). Growth hormone production peaks at night (when we’re sleeping well) so tissue repair depends on good sleep! In addition, protein is an important building block both for immune cells and for repairing tissues (3). Unfortunately it’s also commonly deficient in our busy modern diets. Making sure our immune systems have enough protein to mount a robust response is essential to recovering quickly. A great place to start is to make sure you’re getting a palm-sized amount of protein with each meal. Talk to your practitioner for suggestions for dose and type if this is something you struggle with.
Chronic stress can greatly compromise immune health. But daily habits that promote sleep quality, stress reduction and a nutrient-rich diet support our immune system to function at its best.