Have you ever noticed that you tend to get sick when you’re overly stressed? You might even wake up with a sore throat or stuffy nose after a particularly stressful day.
Now, more than ever, people are walking around overly stressed due to the pandemic, which puts us at an increased risk of catching the coronavirus and dealing with severe symptoms.
One of the best things you can do to boost your immune system is to find healthy ways to deal with stress. Here’s how stress impacts your immune system and overall health, and what you can do about it.
Stress and Immune Health
When you’re stressed, your body has a reduced ability to fight infections. Additionally, as you age, you are also less likely to build appropriate immune responses to stress.
Research shows that psychological stress affects people in a similar manner as the chronological aging process, and aging coupled with stress increases immunological aging, making it harder to stay healthy.
For this reason, older adults have a hard time halting cortisol production in response to stressful events. Normally, cortisol has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
However, chronic elevations can cause the immune system to become overworked and resistant, which compromises its ability to function properly. As a result, an accumulation of stress hormones and overproduction of inflammatory molecules further dampen the immune response.
According to one study, caregivers, who are normally in stressful roles, have longer wound healing times, increased inflammatory markers in the body, lower antibody production, and increased reactivation of viruses.
Research shows that immune cells have receptors for certain hormones and neurotransmitters on their surface. These receptors communicate with immune cells and prepare the body to launch an immune response if necessary.
These immune cells change their responsiveness to signaling to hormones and neurotransmitters during stress. Over time, chronic stress causes immune cells to become overworked, which causes negative changes to immune responses.
How Does Stress Affect Your Overall Health?
Chronic stress ages the body and puts us at an increased risk for illnesses. We can detect some of the changes that stress puts on our body by measuring telomere length.
Telomeres are structures found at the end of our chromosomes. Their job is to protect our DNA.
Research shows that telomere length can be used as a measure of biological aging. It’s also linked to social, psychological, and physiological factors.
According to one study, chronic stress is linked to shortened telomere length and an increased risk of disease in older people.
Some studies show that people who have been married for a long time or who have more money are biologically younger than those who live under more stressful conditions.
Additionally, psychological stress has been shown to increase the risk of several diseases due to its impairment of immune system functioning.
For example, research shows that chronic stress increases your risk of developing autoimmune conditions, gastrointestinal symptoms, schizophrenia, and other chronic inflammatory diseases.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress can also cause the following health problems:
- Reproductive system damage
- Cardiovascular problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease
- Sleep disorders
- Digestive ailments
- Mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression
If you’re under chronic stress daily, then you might find it hard to concentrate or even articulate in a professional manner. Simple tasks become daunting because your focus is elsewhere.
The American Psychological Association stated that stress can cause your muscle to tense up and become painful. It can also trigger headaches, migraines, and vision problems.
Stress can make it hard to breathe, increase the occurrence of panic attacks, and cause irregular heartbeats. It makes it harder for you to digest your food properly, which can lead to bloating, gas, indigestion, and other GI complications.
The APA stated that chronic stress may contribute to long-term heart and blood vessel problems. It can also cause inflammation in the circulatory system, especially in the coronary arteries, which increases the risk of a heart attack, high blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.
Stress may also cause reproductive problems in both men and women, such as pregnancy loss, infertility, decreased sexual desire, worsening of PMS symptoms, and reproductive diseases.
Dealing with stress in a healthy manner is an important part of boosting your immune health. Follow these tips to help strengthen your immune system and fight stress.
1. Get more sleep.
Research shows that sleep may help relieve stress-induced decreases in immunity. According to one study, even one night of poor sleep can significantly increase neutrophil levels and decrease neutrophil function in healthy men.
To get better rest, try going to bed at the same time every night and waking at the same time every morning, even on weekends. This helps balance your circadian rhythm or body clock.
Other helpful tips include limiting caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol during the day, reducing exposure to light, and exercising earlier in the day.
Exercise doesn’t just help reduce stress. It also boosts immunity. Research shows that acute exercise improves immune response, defense activity, and metabolic health.
Regular exercise has been shown to improve immune regulation and delay the onset of many age-related diseases. You don’t have to participate in strenuous exercise to see benefits, either.
Moving more is a good place to start. Taking daily walks in nature can help reduce stress and connect you to the outdoors, which has also been shown to be relaxing and soothing on stress levels.
3. Find someone to talk to.
Lastly, finding someone to talk to can help you manage your stress levels. It doesn’t have to be a psychotherapist, although that may help the most.
Research shows that talking to someone can help reduce stress. According to one study, emotional similarity buffers stress. The authors concluded that finding someone to relate to your problems to can help reduce stress and cortisol response.
Writing out your feelings, talking to a friend on the phone or through text, and journaling may help ease the burden of daily stress.