Chronic stress can wreak havoc on your immune system. It’s no coincidence that you come down with a cold when you’re worried about something, or that you get sick right before that big stressful presentation at work. Let’s find out why!
What is stress?
Stress happens when life’s events surpass your capacity to cope with them. Your body’s stress response is meant to be a short-term insurance plan for your ultimate survival. It’s called the flight or fight response since it’s triggered when you feel threatened. That’s when you need to call upon your body’s resources to either fight the threat or flee from it.
When the threat is only in your mind, your body still responds with all the artillery to allow you to fight it or run away. When the threat remains constantly in your mind, the stress response just never stops. It doesn’t return back to baseline.
Stress hormones are designed to be released in short term bursts to help us survive. When these hormones are continuously released, several unwelcome effects occur. These chronic stress hormones set up a sluggish immune system. The result of this stressed immune system is an increased risk of infections.
Chronic Stress and White Blood Cells
When there are continuous stress hormones like cortisol present, lymphocyte numbers go down. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell released when germs are detected. This type of white blood cell can help fight viral infections. A low lymphocyte count then allows germs, especially viruses, to multiply quicker.
The simple interpretation is this: when you’re chronically stressed, viral infections multiply faster. This means influenza, common colds, and even coronavirus can get a jump on your immune system.
Chronic Stress and Inflammation
Another effect of cortisol is the limitation of the body’s inflammatory response. If you have long term high levels of cortisol, the body becomes accustomed to this elevation. This suppression of the immune system can then lead to a chronic inflammatory state. Many organ systems may experience the detrimental effects of chronic inflammation. Auto-immune diseases like lupus, inflammatory bowel disease, and rheumatoid arthritis can result.
So what can you do to lower your stress and help your immune system function its best?
Awareness of Physical Signs of Stress
The first step to reverse chronic stress is to be aware of it. How do you know you’re feeling the effects of chronic stress? Physical signs of chronic stress include fatigue, frequent headaches, and stomachaches. You may also experience recurring intestinal cramps or nausea and diarrhea. Brain fog, muscle aches, and tenderness are often reported, too.
Depression and generalized anxiety can also be the result of chronic stress. You may also get more than the average number of colds and upper respiratory infections. These are all signs your immune system is affected by chronic stress.
Once you’re aware that you’re experiencing chronic stress, what can you do? The good news is, there are some things you can do to calm your mind and body. Start with becoming aware of your breath. Practice slowing your mind by focusing on your breathing.
Begin a regular meditation practice to help lower your stress levels. There are many apps that help you learn how to meditate and track the time you spend in a meditative state. These apps can be downloaded on your phone so they’re available to you at all times.
Exercise also helps lower your stress. Any type of physical exercise is helpful. Yoga is particularly effective in lowering stress and cortisol levels. You can begin a yoga practice by following yoga videos at home. You could also attend local yoga classes. Be sure to get medical clearance before beginning any new exercise program.
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