Russell Skinner, MD
With our world in the midst of a pandemic and our lives at an unprecedented halt, it’s no secret that many of us are experiencing stress like never before. Every day we are faced with new health issues and circumstances that many of us have never had to navigate before. While anxiety induced by these changes is normal, it’s important to remember that too much of it can have a negative impact on your immune system putting you at a greater risk for health issues.
The Impact of Stress on the Immune System
Stressed out? Lonely or depressed? Don't be surprised if you come down with “something”.
While we don’t know all of the implications of high stress on the body, we do have an understanding of some of them. Psychology Today states that “the brain and the immune system are in constant communication,” and that “this delicate balance...can be disrupted by any kind of physical and emotional stress.” Some believe that as many as 90% of diseases and illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer, have stress as a causative factor.
Why Is It So Harmful?
When a stressor occurs, the brain signals to the endocrine system to release hormones and prepare the body for an emergency. This, in turn, suppresses the immune system.
This response then creates several chemical reactions in the body, eventually filling it with the hormone cortisol. Cortisol decreases inflammation, white blood cells, and natural killer (NK) cells which help to fight cancer. On the other hand, cortisol increases tumor development and the rate of tissue infection and damage.
Studies have shown that as a result those with higher anxiety levels, especially at young ages, tend to be at a greater risk of developing autoimmune disorders. Those with stress-related psychiatric disorders like PTSD are even prone to developing multiple autoimmune disorders.
These studies also showed that some autoimmune disorders were more common than others for an individual experiencing significant stressors. For example, celiac disease was more common than rheumatoid arthritis. The good news, however, is that those who sought to treat their condition with things like antidepressants had a less dramatic rate of disease.
The Long-Terms Risks
If stress continues to be a factor for an individual, cortisol levels will remain high, causing major long-term issues in the body. These may include:
This chronic anxiety may also lead to a greater risk of catching an infectious disease, longer healing time from surgeries or wounds, cancer, and premature aging. In regards to lifestyle changes, it often causes one to lose sleep, slack on exercise, and make poor eating choices.
Learning to Deal With It
Since stress is unavoidable, it’s imperative that you find ways to deal with it. This may include:
Lastly, spend time with the ones you love. These social ties may indirectly strengthen immunity because friends...can encourage good health and behaviors.