Stress & How it Affects Your Immune System
Every April since 1992 has been Stress Awareness Month, a month dedicated to bringing public awareness to the causes of stress, the impact stress has on our bodies, and ways to alleviate stress. While we’ll never be able to eliminate every cause of stress, by spreading awareness of its impact and healthy ways to cope, we can limit any negative effects it has on us.
This year, Stress Awareness Month could not have come at a better time! Did you know higher levels of stress can weaken your immune system? With the novel Coronavirus still wreaking havoc around the world, it’s important that we manage our stress well to keep our immune system strong. Pure Parima will be releasing a series of blogs, newsletters, and Instagram posts to teach others about the importance of stress awareness and how to cope in this ever-changing world!
What is Stress?
According to Stress.org.uk, “Stress is primarily a physical response. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action.”
Although “stress” is often thought of negatively, we need it to survive! Stress is how our cavemen ancestors were able to escape predators and other threats to their life. Good stress, called eustress, can help us focus in on a task that needs to be accomplished; many people can probably relate to the phrase “I work better under pressure”. Moderate doses of stress might even improve your memory! But too much stress, like too much of anything, can be a bad thing.
When Stress Persists
Chronic stress is what most people think of when they hear the word “stress”. It’s the anxiety, pressure, tension, strain we feel due long-term stressors such as work, family, finances, or other personal problems. Stress, which works well for short term situations like slamming on your brakes to avoid hitting a car or finishing a task on your to-do list, can negatively affect the body when it persists for a long period of time. Chronic stress can cause high blood-pressure, stomach ulcers, and changes in behavior.
Of course, changes in behavior can mean many different things for us all. Some people stop eating or sleeping whereas others start sleeping and eating more than usual! If you have asthma, you may find it harder to breathe. If you have pre-existing digestive problems, these issues may worsen. If you have eczema, stress may cause flare ups. Stress can also lead to substance abuse which can weaken your immune system.
Chronic Stress and Your Immune Health
As mentioned before, persistent stress can take a toll on your body in many ways. To understand how chronic stress impacts our immune system, we need to learn about some key players and their role in fighting off infections.
The immune system is more complex than we’ll get into here, so we’ll focus on a specific type of white blood cell – lymphocytes. There are two types of lymphocytes; KidsHealth.org gives this great analogy to explain:
“B lymphocytes are like the body's military intelligence system — they find their targets and send defenses to lock onto them. T cells are like the soldiers — they destroy the invaders that the intelligence system finds.”
Lymphocytes play an important role in identifying foreign substances, called antigens, and tagging them for phagocytes to destroy. Corticosteroid, a stress hormone, weakens the immune system by reducing the number of lymphocytes in your body. This makes it harder for your body to recognize threats such as viruses.
Chronic stress can lower your immune health in more indirect ways too. People often turn to unhealthy coping habits such as drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes in times of stress. Both alcohol and smoking reduce the number and function of lymphocytes, making you more susceptible to diseases.
While we can’t eliminate every stressor in our lives, we can work on reducing our stress and dealing with it in healthy ways. For some people, meditation helps, and for some, cardio! From reading a book in your favorite spot to reorganizing your room—there’s bound to be a method for you! For the rest of April, Pure Parima will be posting blogs exploring things you can do to minimize stress in your life. Amidst all the uncertainty right now, one thing is for sure– we could all use some de-stressing!
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