Stress and the immune system: What's the link?
by Marisabelle Bonnici
'Mind over matter' is a frequently-heard catchphrase. Nowadays one of the most used terms in our vocabulary is 'stress'. Our society is posing more demands on our psychological health. Long working hours, increased cost of living, demands made on our body to keep up with work, family, social activities and exercise regimens can result in high-stress lifestyles. A fact many of you may already be aware of is that when our brain feels healthy, our body will feel healthy too.
The ability to fight off diseases depends on various factors. Just like what we eat and drink has effects on our immune system, the way we react to stress can have an effect on our delicate internal balance. Our immune system is innately connected to our brain.
Some studies even claim that stress is responsible for as much as 90% of all illnesses and diseases. When stressed, a stress hormone cortisol is released. In small amounts, this can actually boost our immunity as it reduces inflammation. However, if released for a prolonged period of time, then a rebound effect occurs and a lot of inflammation starts occurring. Chronic inflammation can result in arthritis, hormonal imbalances, inflammatory bowel disease and lupus amongst other conditions.
Increased stress hormone levels have a direct effect on our immunity
Increased cortisol levels can decrease the number of white blood cells (lymphocytes), which cells are responsible for our body's ability to fight microbes. That is why we are more susceptible to infections when feeling stressed. Short-term suppression of the immune system is not dangerous and if you rest and take care of your body with healthy meals you will recover. However, chronic suppression leaves the body vulnerable to infection and disease.
Stress can also have an indirect effect on the immune system as a person may use unhealthy behavioural coping strategies to reduce stress. These may include drinking, smoking, overeating foods that are high in fats and sugars, lack of sleep and lack of exercise.
Furthermore, increased stress levels also have an effect on our digestive system. During periods of high stress, our body has a reduced ability to digest food. As we relax, our digestive processes go into overdrive. This may affect the health of the digestive system causing increased acid reflux, ulcers or diarrhoea. These, in turn, can also make us more susceptible to virus attacks since our body would be weaker.
A high-stress response also has an effect on our circulatory system - leading to an increased heart rate and high blood pressure.
Meditation, yoga, exercise and aromatherapy have all proven to help reduce stress levels. So keep your mind healthy to benefit from a healthy body.