For many of us, stress is just a normal part of life; it comes and goes, sometimes a bit more intense than other times, but nonetheless something that’s inevitable.
Sometimes the stress can last a few hours—like that deadline you have to hit at work—and other times it can last months, like having to care for an ill family member.
Sometimes stress can be a huge motivating factor to push you to the finish line, whereas other times it’s simply overwhelming and can put you on the verge of a mental breakdown.
Whatever the case is, stress is more than just that mental or emotional state you’re feeling. When stress becomes chronic and isn’t managed properly, it can take a huge toll on your body, especially the immune system, which means eliminating or reducing the stressors is critical to maintaining healthy immune responses.
We’re giving you a rundown of all things stress—what it is, the effects on the body, the link between stress and the immune system, and some practical tips you can implement for reducing your stress levels and boosting immune function.
What Is Stress?
Stress is the term for the psychological and physiological state that ensues when events surpass your body’s ability to cope. Psychological, physiological, physical, or exercise-related stressors all activate the body’s biological stress response, which involves the release of factors in both systemic circulation and locally within central and peripheral tissues 1.
In the periphery, the stress response triggers the release of the “big three” stress hormones: norepinephrine and epinephrine released by the sympathetic nervous system, and cortisol, released upon activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
Virtually every cell in the body expresses a receptor for one of the “big three” hormones, and when released, causes changes in nearly every cell and tissue to pass along the message that a stressor is present.
The peripheral stress response also causes the release of other neuroendocrine factors, including adrenocorticotropin (ACTH), vasopressin, oxytocin, and various cytokines 1. But not all stress is created equal. The type of stressor can affect the relative proportions and magnitude/duration of increases in these factors.
But despite what we may think, there’s not just one type of stress. We have:
Each of these can further be classified into:
- Acute stress - A physical response to a perceived threat to well-being; short-term daily stress, like being stuck in traffic or public speaking that typically lasts anywhere from a couple of hours to less than one month.
- Episodic acute stress - Repeated bouts of acute stress; it commonly affects people who worry and causes mood imbalances like anxiety and depression.
- Chronic stress - Situations where the stressor is overwhelming and cannot be resolved; the mechanism normally controlling the stress response does not work, and systemic levels of molecular mediators of stress remain high, thus leading to compromises in immune function and long-term damage in multiple organs and tissues 2. Chronic stress can last anywhere from several hours a day to weeks, months, or even years.
The Negative Effects Of Stress
Some stress is good for the body—that is, the type of stress that comes and goes, dissipating too quickly to do any long-term damage.
This short-term fight-or-flight stress response, typically lasting only minutes to hours, is what researchers call nature’s fundamental survival mechanism that enhances protection and performance under certain conditions 1.
However, when stressors don’t dissipate, and the body remains in a state of fight-or-flight, we run into the problem of chronic stress and the slew of health issues that go along with that.
In addition to immunosuppression, which we’ll talk about more below, chronic stress results in:
- Digestive issues
- Psychiatric illness
- Impaired cognitive function
- Increased risk of chronic disease (CVD, hypertension, heart attack, stroke, etc.)
- Decreased athletic performance and recovery
- Poor sleep
- Metabolic dysregulation
- Fertility issues
That list is far from inclusive, but generally speaking, the longer the stress persists and the more severe it is, the higher the risk of long-term health complications.
Stress And Immune Function
Stress and immune function are intricately connected. There’s an abundance of research indicating that acute stress is beneficial for the body, including the immune system, but when that stress becomes chronic, it can be incredibly debilitating in multiple ways.
The reason stress can actually “get inside the body” is because sympathetic fibers descend from the brain into both primary (bone marrow and thymus) and secondary (spleen and lymph nodes) lymphoid tissues, which then release a variety of substances that influence the function of the immune system.
With respect to stress and immune function, immune responses can be categorized into three distinct areas 1:
- Immuno-protective responses: Responses that promote wound healing, eliminate infections, and mediate vaccine-induced immunological memory. Characteristics of these responses involve active immune surveillance, rapid and robust immune activation, efficient clearance of the agent or pathogen, followed by quick resolution.
- Immuno-pathological responses: Responses that are directed against the body itself (i.e. autoimmune diseases) or innocuous antigens (asthma, allergies) and responses that involve chronic, non-resolving inflammation.
- Immune-regulatory responses: Responses that involve immune cells and factors that mainly serve to downregulate the function of other immune cells; these help to keep various immune responses in check (AI, inflammation, etc.).
There’s a large body of research suggesting that the stress response can cause immunosuppression and other types of immune system dysfunction, and in cases where the stressor isn’t quickly alleviated, it would be beneficial to block the action of those stress mediators (cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine) that are responsible for adverse immunological effects.
The photo above illustrates how both short-term (acute) and chronic stress can be beneficial and harmful for the body 1. Essentially, we want some stress to strengthen immune responses, but when the stresses become too long-term and too much for the body to handle, it does the exact opposite of what we want.
7 Ways To Beat Stress And Boost Immunity
If you’re tired of getting sick because you’re chronically stressed, don’t sweat it! Reducing stress levels may seem like a tedious task, but we have some options for you.
- Establish boundaries: It can be tempting to always say yes to everything that comes your way, but sometimes you have to put your foot down and set boundaries. Whether that’s in your career, personal life, relationship, or whatever else, setting healthy boundaries prevents you from taking on too much and increasing chronic stress.
- Get enough sleep: Not getting enough sleep can exacerbate stress, which causes the release of stress hormones and further suppression of the immune system. Focus on practicing proper sleep hygiene techniques like eliminating devices 2 hours before bed, cutting back on caffeine, practicing relaxation techniques, blocking out external light, and sleeping in a cool environment.
- Tap into your support system: If you feel like you’re about to boil over, reach out to someone in your support system, be it a friend, family member, partner, or co-worker. Let them know what’s going on and be open to the guidance and support; sharing a burden always lightens up the load. There’s no need to face things alone, and most times, a good vent is welcomed and will take a huge weight off your shoulders.
- Make one health-related commitment: Whether it’s sleeping more, reducing caffeine, saying no more often, or exercising 3-4 times per week, choose one health goal that can contribute to reduced stress levels and stick to it! Small steps can add up to a significant change that can positively impact both stress levels and immune function.
- Stay positive: In the thick of things, keeping a positive headspace can be challenging, but instead of seeing the negative, see challenges as an opportunity and stay positive to minimize stress. For some people, perfectionism and control can be major sources of stress, so as hard as it may sometimes be, learn to go with the flow. Setting realistic expectations and not letting every little thing bother you can go a long way in eliminating or reducing stress.
- Eat a nutrient-dense diet: Did you know that nutritional stress is also a thing? Food sensitivities and intolerances can contribute to biological stress in the body, not to mention kick up an immune reaction and contribute to the development of autoimmune conditions. Eliminate foods that add to stress levels like alcohol, refined sugar, processed carbohydrates, and industrial seed oils, and replace them with a nutrient-dense diet rich in fruits and vegetables, good quality proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats.
- Supplement: Even if you’re doing everything else right, supplementing can be super beneficial for supporting both stress levels and immune function. PL-Immune™ is the world’s most dynamic immune support that uses six powerful all-natural ingredients designed to support and enhance your body’s natural immune defenses. It’s a breakthrough immune-boosting probiotic and antioxidant stack that supports both short and long-range immune activities by activating five different types of immune cells to quickly restore frontline defenses and support your body’s natural immune function. In each dose, you’re getting:
- 20mcg NutriGenesis® Vitamin D
- 30mg NutriGenesis® Vitamin C
- 25mcg NutriGenesis® Selenium
- 5mg NutriGenesis® Zinc
- 50mg IMMUSE™ Paraprobiotic
- 250mg Setria® Glutathione
When it comes to supporting immune function, stress has an absolutely massive role. And while it’s unrealistic to expect that you’re never going to be stressed, learning to manage stress levels and support the body with what it needs is key.
When you address stress head-on, you’re increasing your body’s resilience and indirectly boosting immune function to keep your body protected from every angle.
- FS Dhabhar. The short-term stress response - Mother nature’s mechanism for enhancing protection and performance under conditions of threat, challenge, and opportunity.Front Neuroendocrinol. 2018;49:175-192.
- A The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. Future Sci OA. 2015;1(3):FSO23.