4 min|Dr. Taylor Green
Is Stress Making You Sick?Wellness
How The Immune System Protects Us
Our immune system is our body’s defense mechanism for protecting us from a myriad of potentially harmful viruses, bacteria, parasites, and abnormal cells. It acts as a surveillance system to fight outside invaders and prevent subsequent internal havoc that damages our health. The immune system is a complex network of specialized cells and tissues that communicate and function through a multitude of coordinated cell-to-cell signaling mechanisms to contain and remove the offending agents and restore order. How then, can our immune system be affected by stress, if stress is not an invading virus, bacteria or other pathogen?
The Brain and Immune System Are in Constant Communication
The immune system is orchestrated greatly by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which actively responds to stressors in the environment around us. The body does not distinguish between physical and mental/emotional stress and reacts similarly to all types. When stress is experienced, our brain signals the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol, a type of stress hormone, as well as epinephrine and norepinephrine (also known as adrenaline). These hormones create the “fight or flight” response when a perceived threat is at hand.
Traditionally, when exposed to a life- threatening event, our body would fight or run to ward off an attack. The threat would subside and our HPA axis would quickly return to its former relaxed state. Nowadays, physical, mental, and emotional stress are perceived constantly, leading to a continual production of cortisol in an effort to resist and mitigate the stress. Prolonged elevated cortisol levels cause symptoms such as anxiety, “feeling tired but wired”, sleep disturbances, digestive upset, and immune dysfunction.
Cortisol suppresses the immune system’s effectiveness in fighting off invaders by lowering the number of lymphocytes and NK cells in the blood. This increases our susceptibility to infections. An increase in inflammatory cytokine production is also seen during periods of high stress, which can lead to chronic systemic inflammation. On-going inflammation is associated with the development of many chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, gastric ulcers, diabetes, cancer, dementias, and autoimmune diseases.
Furthermore, stress may lead us to resort to unhealthy coping behaviours like smoking, excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption, drug use, eating too much sugar and processed foods, lack of sleep and exercise, and disengaging from healthy social activities.
How Do I Know If I Have Lowered Immunity?
Signs indicating low-immunity include:
- Catching a cold or flu more than twice each year
- A persistent cold or flu lasting longer than 10 days
- Frequent digestive symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, gas, and bloating
- Slow wound healing
- Frequent respiratory, ear, or sinus infections
- Recurrent cold sores
- Chronic fatigue
How Can I Better Manage My Stress Levels?
Meditating for just 5-10 minutes daily can help lower stress and has positive impacts on mood and stress perception. It helps to reduce cortisol levels and inflammation. Regular meditation has also shown shifts in genes related to fighting viral infections and may even promote healthy aging by preventing the shortening of telomeres.
When you feel stressed, get moving. Find activities that you enjoy and make this a part of your daily routine. Regular physical activity also improves sleep quality.
3. Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and refined sugars
Stimulants put further stress on the adrenals to produce cortisol. Sugars and processed foods suppress immune cell activity in addition to causing blood sugar dysregulation. Insulin and cortisol have direct influences on one another.
4. Try Acupuncture
A key component of Traditional Chinese Medicine; it is a powerful modality to reverse the effects of stress. It stimulates the release of oxytocin, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
5. Adaptogenic Botanicals
Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Panax ginseng, Avena sativa, Licorice root, Astragalus, and Holy Basil are just a few excellent herbs that enhance our resiliency to stress and immunity.
6. Try IV Therapy
Provides 100% absorption of vital vitamins and minerals necessary for proper adrenal and immune function. Speak with your ND about what formulations are appropriate for you.
Episodic stress is inevitable. Learning how to modify your response to stress, and reduce it, is imperative to healthy immunity and boosting your overall quality of life!
Always consult with your healthcare practitioner before starting any treatment regime. For more information on treatment options and for an individual protocol appropriate for you, call 604-738-1012, ext. 1 or email [email protected]