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How psychological stress impacts immunity and what you can do to cope with stress

Feeling stressed?

Maybe you lost your job and the bills are piling up. Maybe you're stuck at home with school-age children and you feel more mentally, emotionally, and physically drained than you've ever felt in your life. Maybe you're feeling overwhelmed with a growing to-do list that you never seem to have time to tackle even though you've basically been quarantined at home for months. Perhaps you're like the majority of us who are stressed out by the persistence and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic and all the subsequent health concerns.

Whatever the case may be, your feelings are valid and you are not alone.

What is psychological stress? 

Stress, also known as emotional tension or mental strain, permeates our life in many ways. In a 2011 study published in the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, researchers defined stress as “any situation which tends to disturb the equilibrium between a living organism and its environment.”  

However, stress is difficult to define because what may be a stressful situation for one may not be a stressful situation for another. Moreover, it is often self-reported by individuals and it is hard to measure because of nuances in experiences.

Stressful situations can trigger hormonal changes and physiological responses in individuals. This is based on the “fight, flight or freeze” response, a survival mechanism that allows humans and other animals to act quickly to life-threatening situations. For instance, stress can result in heavy breathing and heart pounding. Moreover, the brain provokes production of the “stress hormone” cortisol, which helps individuals respond to the stressful situation. 

However, research has shown that stress for extended periods of time—also known as chronic stress—has negative impacts on physical and mental health. Chronic stress can contribute to the development of a range of chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and can even cause brain changes that may lead to anxiety, depression, and addiction. 

How can stress weaken the immune system?

Over time, the repeated activation of the stress response can take a toll on your immune system. While this response is helpful in stressful situations, it can negatively influence your immune health long-term due to consistent bodily exposure of the hormone cortisol. You can test your cortisol levels to see if you have the optimal amount for healthy immune function. 

“Chronic elevated levels of cortisol constantly activated by the stress response can affect blood sugar levels,” says Dr. Shebani Sethi Dalai, MD, MS, the Founding Director of Stanford’s Metabolic Psychiatry Clinic and Silicon Valley Metabolic Psychiatry.

“Research shows a correlation between high blood sugar and immune dysfunction, that is high blood sugar prevents critical immune cells from doing its job in fighting infections all across the board.”

Chronic stress also causes inflammation in the body, according to a 2019 study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience. While the exact linkage is not understood, preliminary evidence suggests that acute and chronic stress is associated with increased inflammatory activity in the body that can make individuals more susceptible to many infections and autoimmune diseases. 

Moreover, the growing field of psychoneuroimmunology has provided a lot of insight regarding the association with chronic stress and immune function. However, there are a lot of limitations with conducting research in this arena. For instance, “controlled experiments” are difficult to perform in human beings as a variety of factors influence the immune system. Researchers are not able to change only one variable and then measure the effect of that change on the human immune system, as each person’s unique inflammatory response is different. 

A review article of current research in the field authored by the American Psychological Association showcased findings of how individuals with chronic stress have a lower count of immunological cells. This includes white blood cells that help the body fight off tumors and viral infections. “Thus long-term or chronic stress, through too much wear and tear, can ravage the immune system,” the authors of the review article note.

One way you can boost your body’s natural defenses is by taking the immune boost injectable with Thymosin Alpha 1, a natural peptide protein clinically proven to lower the risk of infection from flu, viruses, or bacteria. 

How To Reduce Stress

Day-to-day stress happens and it is okay. We must focus on how to reduce our stress levels not only to keep our immune system healthy, but also boosting mood and our energy levels. During these challenging times, everyone needs a variety of ways to reduce emotional stress. Below, we highlight the big ones.

“Stress is here to stay, but how we react and respond to it is critical,” says Dr. Sethi Dalai.  
Connect with others

Make sure you stay connected to others during this pandemic, even with physical distancing guidelines. “Connecting with other people not only makes us feel calmer but also gives us a sense of self-worth and belonging,” says Dr. Nina Vasan, Founder and Executive Director of Brainstorm: The Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation and psychiatrist at Silicon Valley Executive Psychiatry. She recommends getting creative with virtual interactions, from Zoom game nights to Netflix watch parties. It can also be helpful to talk about your stress with loved ones as they can offer support, she explains. 

Eat healthy

Consuming nutritious meals consistently can optimize your mental health and immune health long-term, explains Dr. Sethi Dalai. Limit ultra-processed, sugar-rich foods and focus on eating more whole foods with anti-inflammatory properties. “Minimally-processed foods like fresh produce reduce inflammation in the brain, which can positively boost mood and decrease effects of stress,” says Dr. Sethi Dalai. Stack more of your plate with veggies and fresh fibrous fruit, especially colorful ones like red bell peppers and kiwi that are rich in immune-boosting Vitamin C!

Engage in mindfulness 

Mindfulness refers to a psychological state of awareness, also known as being in the present moment. This practice has been proven to foster calmness and improve mental clarity, which are helpful while dealing with stress. “Mindfulness involves noticing our feelings and bodily sensations, which calms our overactive and hyper-alert primitive systems activated during stressful situations” explains Dr. Sethi Dalai. She recommends practicing this for 5-10 minutes a day, whether it be through meditation, writing, or deep breathing. 

Practice gratitude 

Identifying the smallest silver linings in our life is linked to greater self-esteem and stress reduction, Dr. Vasan explains.

“Being consistent about what you are thankful for daily has both immediate and lasting impacts on stress,” says Dr. Vasan. “I have a daily ritual of filling my gratitude jar with something I am grateful for in my life.”

Just like Dr. Vasan, take some time to recognize one thing you are grateful for each day. 

Sleep well 

One in third of adults do not get the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommended amount of 7 hours or more of sleep. Good-quality sleep with proper sleep hygiene guidelines is strongly encouraged as lack of sleep negatively influences your immunity and mental health, Dr. Sethi Dalai says. “Sleep is critical for memory, mood, immune function and much more. Aim to sleep for a minimum of seven hours to be well-rested.” says Dr. Sethi Dalai. 

Stay active

Make sure you are exercising regularly, even if it means you have to be creative with social distancing guidelines in place. Research has shown that aerobic exercises like jogging, swimming, walking, and dancing can reduce stress and boost immunity. “If my patients are having a hard time getting started, I prescribe the scientifically-designed, high-intensity, New York Times 7-minute workout daily, as it is short, can be done anywhere, and the only equipment you need is a chair.” says Dr. Vasan. She recommends to ward off that sedentary lifestyle and keep moving, whether that means a walk in your neighborhood or online fitness class. 

Foster Intimacy

Intimacy is a proven way to boost immunity. If you or your partner are struggling with intimacy, our nationwide network of specialized physicians are just a phone call or video chat away. They will help determine the best course of action to take to optimize each body's whole health—not just fill a prescription. Insurance is accepted. Why not get started today?

Anika Nayak
Anika Nayak is a Florida-based freelance journalist specializing in lifestyle, fitness, nutrition, and wellness. Her articles have appeared in dozens of publications including Architectural Digest, Business Insider, Elite Daily, Greatist, HuffPost, Rewire, SELF, and The Lily.