Stress and immunity: what’s the link?
Sophia Power, BA Media
- A small amount of stress is normal, but chronic stress can have far-reaching effects on the immune and nervous systems.
- Long-term stress causes something called ‘immunosuppression’ – increasing the risk of infection and inflammation.
- Improving your stress management techniques and learning new ones is never too late to undo the damage that stress can cause. Finding small windows of time in your day to breathe, move, eat well and manage your mindset can lead to a much happier, healthier you in the long run.
Our rapidly changing world has put a kind of pressure on our bodies that we’ve never had to deal with before. Overthinking, tension, emotional exhaustion, worry, frustration and feeling pressured or overwhelmed are some of the emotional symptoms. But feeling run-down and getting frequent infections like the common cold are some of the physical signs that your body is also being impacted.
If you’re feeling stressed, depleted and your immune system is run-down, the old faithful vitamin C alone isn’t likely going to cut it – it’s time to dive deeper into your immune support.
What is chronic stress?
Short bursts of stress or ‘acute stress’ is not just normal, it’s a part of all our lives. A presentation, a deadline, running late – these things require you to be on edge for a short time or you’d never get anything done! Research also shows that acute stress increases your immune defences; the nervous system gives a signal to the immune system to increase the production of immune cells and send them to sites of potential infection or inflammation. Chronic stress, on the other hand, impairs this signal. 
So, where does that leave the immune system if you have been chronically stressed? You may become more vulnerable to infection and have a harder time recovering, otherwise known as ‘immunosuppression’.
Chronic stress symptoms
Here are some of the symptoms of long-term stress:
- Frequent infections and poor recovery
- Body aches and pains
- Poor sleep
- Increased reliance on sugar, alcohol and caffeine for stimulation and energy
- Lethargy, weakness
- Low mood
- Difficulty concentrating and brain fog
- Lack of appetite or difficulty with digestion
- Lack of motivation
What causes chronic stress?
The causes of chronic stress can be different for everybody. As individuals, we are wired differently and have had unique life experiences, some of which may have provided opportunities to have learnt more effective techniques than others for getting through difficult times in life.
Maintaining awareness of your stress levels, how long an event has been happening and if your response to it has changed is a big part of preventing and/or recovering from chronic stress. Reaching out for support from your friends, family or other trusted community can help to curb chronic stress before it gets out of hand. What starts out as acute stress can lead to long-term or chronic stress if it isn’t well managed.
Stress and its effects on immunity
So how exactly does stress affect the immune system? Thanks to a ton of research in this area, we now know that long-term stress suppresses both major branches of the immune system (the innate and adaptive immune responses). This can lead to chronic inflammation and a much higher risk of infection, as well as chronic disease.
The two major systems that regulate stress are the autonomic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.[3,4] The autonomic nervous system is a pathway for stress signalling that lets the body know how to react to threats – perceived or real. The HPA axis is a set of three glands that signal to each other and produce hormones (including stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline). Chronic stress calls on these two systems to produce the responses that are needed to get away from perceived danger, eventually depleting them to the point of dysregulation. Nervous system dysregulation is something that society is becoming more aware of as it becomes more common – it’s frequently referred to as burnout, adrenal fatigue, nervous exhaustion or even just ‘running on empty’.
How does stress affect the immune system?
How does this state of chronic stress or burnout affect the immune system? Lowered immunity occurs when the nutrients needed for maintaining a healthy immune system are redirected to the overrun nervous system. There’s a range of resources that both the nervous system and immune system need to run optimally. During times of high stress, the nervous system uses up a lot more vitamins and minerals, especially magnesium, zinc, calcium, iron and B vitamins such as B3.
In a less direct way, chronic stress can also impact the choices you make every day to maintain good health. One busy day of too much caffeine and sugar and not enough rest isn’t going to make a difference, but this can easily snowball when stress gets the better of you. Reaching for convenient, processed foods that are high in sugar and low in nutrients during stressful times means you’re not only burning through vital nutrients, you’re also not replacing them.
Chronic stress can impact your sleep, which leads to a cycle of tiredness and more poor choices as you try to quickly prop up your energy levels. Lack of quality sleep disrupts the all-important circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) which is shown to impact immune function. Important immune processes actually take place during sleep.
In fact, sleep doesn’t just help to produce and activate immune cells, it also enhances immune memory. Immune cells of the adaptive immune system work by creating memories of invaders for the next time they’re encountered. Prolonged periods of disrupted or poor sleep has been shown to trigger an increase in pro-inflammatory markers and impaired immune cell function.
Diet to boost immune system and support stress symptoms
Aside from a good night’s sleep, what else can help with chronic stress and poor immunity? Get back to basics – here are some easy dietary tips to incorporate in day-to-day to support both your nervous and immune systems.
Sneak in some fruit and veg
Fruit and vegetables are packed full of a range of nutrients for immunity and stress relief. They also add much-needed fibre (including the prebiotic variety) to keep things ticking along in the digestive department – another area that can be impacted by stress.
Think protein for stress support
Including a source of protein at meals will hold you (and your blood sugars and mood) in much better stead than reaching for a bowl of pasta or another carb-heavy snack. Protein is low on the glycaemic index and keeps you fuller for longer than its carby counterparts. Research also shows that the amino acid tryptophan (one of the building blocks of protein) helps to alleviate stress by increasing serotonin – the happy, feel-good brain chemical.
If you’re looking for more nutrient and herbal tips for immune health and stress support, check out this blog here.
Speaking of blood sugar, if you’re stressed and distracted it can be easy to forget to eat, leading to a drop in blood sugar levels. Ensure you’ve always got healthy, high protein snacks on hand (in your bag, your desk drawer or anywhere else you’re at risk of getting distracted and ‘hangry’).
For more mood-boosting food ideas to support your stress levels and mental health, check out this blog.
How to boost immune system naturally
The beauty of even small lifestyle changes when it comes to managing stress is that many, if not all, of these changes will positively influence your immune system too.
1. See the light
An early morning stroll in the sunshine will have you breathing more deeply, getting your circulation moving and boosting your vitamin D levels safely.
That’s not all though. Early natural light exposure also supports a healthy circadian rhythm, which helps to improve sleep and strengthens the body’s stress response.
2. Shift focus
Committing to a daily gratitude practice such as a gratitude journal or naming three things you’re grateful for every morning is shown to naturally relieve stress. A gratitude practice also boosts the production of the feel-good hormone oxytocin and lowers cortisol, which helps to regulate the immune system.
3. A problem shared
This may seem obvious but delegating to others in order to take some pressure off during busy or difficult times can make an enormous difference to stress levels. Having a network of support that you know you can call on is also essential for mental wellbeing.
4. Get structured
Having structure allows you to put your priorities in order, reduces overwhelm and creates more time and space. Your immune system will thank you too. Structure creates space for healthy habits like cooking a nourishing dinner, meal prepping, exercise and meditation – all of which contribute to boosting your immunity.
5. Exercise to boost immunity and relieve stress
Exercise has powerful effects on both stress and the immune system. If you’re having a hard time and you don’t enjoy 6am gym classes five days a week then find something you do love! Even short bursts of activity are proven to boost immune function. If you’d like to find out more about the connection between exercise and immunity, click here.
6. Go within
As the saying goes, ‘if you don’t have time to sit and meditate for 10 minutes, then you need to meditate for an hour’. Can meditation reduce stress? Absolutely it can! If you’ve always thought of meditation as wishy-washy, those days are long gone. Meditation is backed by an impressive body of scientific research. You can learn all about how mindset and meditation can influence the immune system here.
Chronic stress is becoming a way of life for more and more people. Yes, it takes more work to manage stress these days, but there are so many wonderful techniques you can build into your everyday life. Chances are, once you’ve made a few changes you’ll feel the difference. Stress can snowball out of control, but mindfully managing your stress can help melt that snowball before it turns into an avalanche.
If you’re ready to dive a little deeper into supporting your immune system health, check out our e-book Support Your Immune Fitness packed with easy ways to boost your immunity from nutrients and diet, to lifestyle and herbs plus delicious and healthy recipes.
- Dragos D, et al. J Med Life 2010;3(1):10-8.
- Yale Medicine. Accessed March 2022 from https://www.yalemedicine.org/conditions/stress-disorder
- Harvard Health Publishing. Last updated July 2020, accessed April 2022 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
- Neuroscientifically challenged. Accessed April 2022 from https://neuroscientificallychallenged.com/posts/what-is-the-hpa-axis#:~:text=The%20hypothalamic%2Dpituitary%2Dadrenal%20axis,on%20top%20of%20the%20kidneys.
- Lopresti A.L. Adv Nutr 2020;11(1):103-112.
- Sleep Foundation. Last updated March 2022, accessed April 2022 from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/physical-health/how-sleep-affects-immunity
- Besedovsky L, et al. Flugers Arch 2012;463(1):121-137.
- Sharma R. Whey Proteins: From Milk to Medicine. 2019; Academic Press Elsevier.
- Munch M, et al. Clocks & Sleep 2020;2(1):61-85.
- Positive Psychology. Written February 2022, accessed March 2022 from https://positivepsychology.com/neuroscience-of-gratitude/
- Chaudhury H, et al. Indian Journal of Positive Psychology 2014;5(4):528-530.
- Therapy group of NYC. Accessed April 2022 from https://nyctherapy.com/therapists-nyc-blog/the-mental-health-benefits-of-having-a-daily-routine/