You are already aware of the negative effects stress can have on your mental health. It’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed as you try to figure everything out in the midst of a global pandemic when your routine is upended, a growing to-do list is suddenly accompanied by kids at home, or feelings of isolation creep in as you navigate changes in your career or health.
However, stress can definitely have long-term physical effects (and often, your mental wellbeing can manifest in various ways throughout your body). According to research, persistent stress can make you eat poorly, refrain from exercising frequently, raise your blood pressure, and disrupt your sleep.
It can also have a negative impact on your immune system, which serves as your body’s first line of defence against threats. When it comes to supporting your body’s natural defences when it counts most, we asked a doctor to explain the relationship between stress and immunity.
How does the immune system function?
According to a 2015 review of research published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, your immune system is made up of a number of components distributed throughout your entire body, including your cells, proteins, organs, and tissues.
And it works tirelessly to prevent or limit disease, infection, and physical harm to your body. It can distinguish between healthy and unhealthy cells when used collectively. According to the National Institutes of Health, it can also recognize foreign substances and infectious microbes, including bacteria and viruses.
Your body mounts an immune response when a “danger” is identified in an effort to neutralize it. Different cells interact with one another and carry out special tasks to identify and address issues.
How exactly does stress compromise your immune system?
There are many methods supported by science for maintaining a strong immune system, such as following a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and engaging in regular exercise. However, on the other end of the spectrum, some elements—among which chronic physical and mental stress is thought to be one—can actually interfere with your immune response.
According to Kathryn A. Boling, M.D., a primary care physician at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center, a lot of it has to do with the stress hormone cortisol. Your body increases the amount of cortisol it produces when you are under stress. She says that if you experience ongoing stress, your cortisol levels will rise and remain elevated over time.
In the short term, cortisol can be beneficial and even protective, such as when you require a surge of energy to help you escape a hazardous situation. However, as Dr. Boling explains, being exposed to cortisol on a regular basis can reduce your body’s immune response.
Among others? Chronic stress causes a steady increase in inflammation in the body, which is a known precursor and aggravating factor for many diseases, including obesity, autoimmune diseases, and heart conditions. According to the authors of a 2015 research review, “inflammation is a necessary short-term response for removing pathogens and starting healing, but chronic, systemic inflammation represents immune system dysregulation and increases risk for chronic diseases.”
Additionally, they suggest that immunological cells, such as lymphocytes, your white blood cells, have changed. These specialized infection fighters may have a harder time responding to outside invaders when you’re under chronic stress, the researchers note.
How to reduce stress to maintain physical health?
Dr. Boling claims that one of the best things you can do for your general health is to reduce your stress levels, but that is sometimes easier said than done. Here are a few realistic, professional-recommended ways to accomplish that in the present-day environment.
Don’t become fixated on the news.
Yes, things are extremely difficult right now, but checking your phone constantly to see the most recent coronavirus case confirmation rate isn’t doing you any favours. De-stressing is necessary, advises Dr. Boling. She advises putting restrictions on how often and when you check the news. She says, “I wouldn’t do it for more than a few minutes, a couple of times a day. If not, it develops into an anxiety-inducing obsession.
Get moving when you can.
Dr. Boling claims that even 20 minutes of exercise is preferable to inactivity. You can do pushups, jumping jacks, or brisk walking around your home, she suggests. “Getting active will aid in burning off some of the anxiety you’re experiencing.” (Check out this at-home total body workout that takes 15 minutes.)
Eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods.
According to Gina Keatley, a certified dietitian nutritionist working in New York City, “Amino acids are the building blocks of protein—and all of our antibody responses, cell-mediated immunity, and natural killer cells are made of proteins.” “We want these to seek and destroy when we are ill.”
According to Beth Warren, R.D., author of Secrets of a Kosher Girl, pile a rainbow of produce on your plate in addition to lean proteins like fatty fish. She claims that colourful foods, such as leafy greens, bell peppers, citrus fruits, sweet potatoes, and berries, are full of antioxidants with special abilities to reduce inflammation. Aim for the 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables per day recommended by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is what Warren advises.
Get enough sleep.
According to Julia Blank, M.D., a family medicine specialist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, “getting enough sleep helps our bodies recover from everyday stress—both physical and mental—and promotes better functioning of our immune system.” When you don’t get enough sleep, your body may actually slow down the production of cytokines, which are protective proteins that your immune system relies on to function when it’s under stress.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, people up to the age of 64 should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night, while people over 65 should aim for between seven and eight. Check out our comprehensive guide on how to sleep better every night if you’ve been tossing and turning.