Everybody knows that stress is bad for you. But why is it harmful? The connection between stress and immune system health affects your ability to fight infection and disease. Stress not only affects your immune system, but your immune system’s response to stress can also affect other body systems as well. The good news is that there are ways to decrease stress and improve your immune system health.
What Does Sudden Stress Do to the Immune System?
Humans have a “fight or flight” response to stress. When ancient humans confronted a wild animal, their body systems increased blood flow, oxygenation, and focus to help them fight or run. According to scientists, sudden stress also boosts the immune system, for a short time, possibly to protect against infection from wounds received during a fight.
What Does Long-term Stress Do to the Immune System?
Once ancient humans fought or ran, the immediate threat was over. Their body’s functions returned to the pre-stress stage, and their immune and other systems returned to normal. Modern humans face ongoing stress from work, relationships, and the complexity of life. Today, humans may start heir day stressed from traffic, spend their day stressed at work, and fight traffic again on their way home. The effects of long-term repeated stress are different than how the body responds to short-term stress.
When faced with stress, the body increases the production of certain hormones in the endocrine system to help boost physical performance. Increasing these hormones uses resources that the immune system also needs. Constant stress steals the proteins and energy necessary to maintain a healthy immune system.
Stress hormones decrease the effectiveness of the immune system. Corticosteroid hormones decrease the production of individual white blood cells used to fight infection. Long-term stress can lead to poor wound healing because the immune system is no longer strong enough to fight infection and promote healthy tissue growth.
When the body can’t protect itself from infection, other systems can be damaged too. Ulcers, headaches, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and asthma can all result from a weakened immune system that leads to damage in other areas. Long-term stress not only makes you more susceptible to infection, it can also lead to developing other diseases.
Another by-product of constant stress that weakens the immune system is unhealthy coping methods. Stress can cause people to neglect their health by not eating right or not exercising. Some people use smoking and drinking to manage stress, which can damage not only the immune system but other body functions.
How to Decrease Stress and Improve Immune Health
Studies of college students show that during exams, students’ immune systems are the weakest. In one study, some students participated in relaxation therapy. The students who practiced relaxing through meditation and other methods had stronger immune systems during exams than students who didn’t. Taking time to de-stress your body and mind helps strengthen your immune system.
Because long-term stress keeps your body in a constant “fight or flight” mode, relaxation is key to allowing your body to rest and recover.
Relaxation lowers corticosteroid hormones and helps valuable white blood cell levels to return to normal. Healthy forms of relaxation and stress management include:
To decrease stress and improve your immune system, finding a good way to relax is essential. Researchers also believe that having friends can reduce stress and improve immune system health. Having good friends allows for stress support and social relaxation. Friends may also encourage you to lead a healthy lifestyle that decreases stress and improves your overall wellbeing.