Stress and Your Immune System

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Kevin Aister DO

Apr 21, 2020

Everyone experiences stress from time to time. Whether it’s a quick burst before an important job interview or a crucial test, or the ongoing stress associated with weathering a severe health problem, stress will inevitably enter into your life. Some stress is positive: it can be a powerful source of energy and drive that allows us to tackle difficult situations. If stress is protracted or becomes chronic, it’s not so helpful.

When stress can help your immune system

Many factors can determine how well your immune system is working. One of these is the degree of inflammation in your body. While the mechanisms involved aren’t fully understood, it is known that the immune system may function more effectively when there’s less inflammation in your body.

The initial burst of stress that comes when you face one of life’s challenges can give you a short-term immunity boost, as anti-inflammatory hormones are released into your bloodstream. This reduction in inflammation can help your immune system to work as it’s supposed to, fighting off pathogens while leaving your body’s tissues alone.

When stress can be harmful

Long-term stress, unfortunately, can have the opposite effect. The body becomes accustomed to the anti-inflammatory effects of stress, causing it to compensate by producing more inflammatory substances. When there’s too much inflammation in the body, the immune system functions less well. It becomes less effective at fending off pathogens — while also becoming more likely to attack the body’s cells. These conditions are called autoimmune disorders.

Immune conditions that can be caused by stress

There are many immune and autoimmune conditions that can be caused by stress. While many of the best known affect the GI tract or the joints, these conditions can affect all systems in the body. Here are some examples.

Arthritis: The immune system attacks the tissues of the joints, causing pain and swelling. As the condition advances, joints can become permanently damaged and distorted.

Inflammatory bowel disease: A condition in which inflammation in the GI tract causes damage.

Eczema: Also known as atopic dermatitis (AD), this is a skin condition that causes redness, itching, and sometimes blisters. Eczema is often triggered by allergens but can also be set off by stress.

Psoriasis:
 More severe than eczema, this condition causes large patches of abnormal skin. These patches can be red or purple, with a scaly texture.

Fibromyalgia: This painful and disabling condition, still mysterious, caused mental confusion, fatigue, and pain throughout the body.

Lupus: This is a complex disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the whole body. Any part of the body can be involved, including joints, skin, and even the meninges of the brain.

Combating stress

The good news is that stress and its impact on the immune system can be addressed and even reversed. Here are some tactics that may help.

Regular exercise: For the average adult, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise and strength training per week. While immune conditions can make some exercise difficult, it’s essential to try and find an activity that you can do regularly. As well as being important for health, exercise can reduce your stress levels.

Meditation: There are many different types of meditation. As well as the familiar inhibitory meditation, where the person meditating sits still and attempts to direct their attention to some single focus, there are other forms that may be easier to take up. These include walking meditation and other forms involving physical movement; and mindfulness meditation, where the practitioner cultivates an intense awareness of the present moment.

Mind/body disciplines: Practices such as yoga, qi gong, tai chi, and some martial arts can significantly reduce stress, and also support overall health. They’re also appropriate to a range of ability levels. If you find yourself dealing with excessive or prolonged stress, consider speaking to a medical professional. Your doctor may be able to suggest useful remedies, prescribe medication, or refer you for specialist care. While stress is a part of life, it’s unhealthy to endure severe stress for long periods of time.

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