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The Connection Between Stress and the Immune System

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

What Is the Relationship Between Stress and the Immune System?

Not only do you feel stressed out all the time, but you seem to be constantly getting sick as well. Are these two things related?

Can stress and anxiety weaken the immune system?

It just so happens that your combination of high-stress levels and underperforming immune system are probably not a coincidence.

We’ll explain the link between stress and the immune system here, including specific ways stress can negatively affect the immune system, signs of weakened immunity, and how you can help manage your stress and boost wellness in the process.

Table of Contents

What Is the Immune System?

The immune system is a complex network that helps the body fight against infection. Its main parts include:

  • Antibodies

  • White blood cells

  • Proteins

  • The spleen

  • The thymus

  • Bone marrow; and

  • The lymphatic system

These parts work together to combat microbes and infections. They keep a record of these and are able to flush them out of the body even more quickly the next time — in other words, you can become immune to certain sicknesses.

The immune system can be prone to underactivity or overactivity, and there are a variety of conditions, such as disease, genetics, and stress, that could compromise it.

The word stress written with  a red pencil.

What Is Stress and What Are the Negative Effects of Stress?

Stress is our mind and body’s response when we feel threatened or pressured. One may feel stress due to:

  • Struggling to manage responsibilities

  • Grief/bereavement

  • Financial problems

  • Discrimination

  • Natural disasters/pandemics

  • And much more

From an evolutionary standpoint, stress and the fight-or-flight response it evoked was a good thing. But over time, this has become less needed. Stressors that don’t require a physical response (like an exam at school or having trouble paying your bills, among many others) can still require a physical response, which may lead to immune system changes.

A small amount of stress may spur us on to complete a task, but too much unmanaged stress can lead to mental and physical issues. Studies have shown that stress can alter immune function and exacerbate symptoms of illness, whether physical or psychological. Chronic stress and the immune system are linked.

Managing stress can have many beneficial outcomes, but it’s important to remember that health is holistic and you should acknowledge other factors in addition to stress when considering your immune system.

Can Stress and Anxiety Weaken the Immune System? 4 Ways Stress Can Affect the Immune System

#1: Raises Cortisol

Stress raises cortisol levels, which in turn makes blood sugar higher and diverts glucose to the muscles, readying the body for that fight-or-flight response we discussed earlier. In doing so, it weakens systems that are considered less important in the moment, including the immune system.

This can make your body more vulnerable to illnesses.

#2: Elevates Inflammation

A study published in Current Opinion in Psychology showed that stress causes the body to produce an inflammatory response. While a short burst of this can help fight germs, over time it may have a negative impact on the body.

That’s because widespread or persistent inflammation could lead to:

#3: Damages Cells

Acute stress may cause cellular damage in a variety of ways. First of all, it has been shown to weaken the mitochondrial structure — also known as the powerhouse of the cell — within hours, affecting its function.

Severe and prolonged stress may also reduce the body’s ability to produce lymphocytes, the white blood cells that work to fight infection.

#4: Strains the Digestive and Circulatory Systems

Stress can affect entire systems of the body. For instance, it may inhibit digestion and even cause ulcers, which can block the movement of food through the stomach and the rest of the digestive system.

Stress may also strain the circulatory system with symptoms such as increased heart rate and higher blood pressure. This could increase the risk of developing heart disorders.

A woman blowing her nose.

Signs of a Weakened Immune System That May Be Due to Stress

Some of the signs of a weakened immune system that may be caused by stress could include:

  • Frequent colds

  • Constant stomach issues

  • Wounds that are slow to heal

  • Persistent infections

  • Being tired all the time

  • Weight gain

  • Acne

  • Insomnia

  • Irritability

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Frequent headaches

  • Trouble concentrating; and

  • Lack of energy

Having one or a combination of these symptoms may not mean you’re suffering the adverse effects of stress, but you should closely examine how you respond to everyday stressors and see if that could be an issue.

And remember, if you’re experiencing these issues frequently, you should contact your healthcare provider to rule out any other causes.

8 Tips to Boost the Immune System and Manage Stress

#1: Eat a Balanced Diet

Eating meals that include a good mix of fruits and vegetables is known to support immune function. Make sure to have a variety of foods rich in:

  • Vitamin C

  • Vitamin D

  • Zinc

  • Iron

  • Vitamin A; and

  • Vitamin E

These micronutrients can help with the growth and function of immune cells.

#2: Get Enough Quality Sleep

Getting enough sleep — and a good quality of sleep, at that — helps support the immune system. It can also improve your overall sense of well-being and clear your mind.

To ensure you’re getting enough good sleep at night, make sure you establish a routine that is conducive to rest. This may include taking steps such as:

  • Avoiding caffeine late in the day

  • Keeping your sleeping area cool

  • Staying off your screens at night

  • Using blackout curtains and white noise machines

  • Going to bed and getting up around the same time each day

#3: Exercise Regularly

You don’t have to hit the gym seven days a week to experience the benefits of exercise. Just moving and doing something you enjoy — like walking, tennis, golf, and more — as regularly as possible can reduce stress and boost immunity.

And if you can get your exercise while enjoying some nature, even better! Research shows that experiencing the outdoors can be an antidote to stress.

#4: Engage in Physical Touch

The right kind of physical touch can help you feel safe, supported, and connected to others. Studies show that it can also calm you and help you handle stress better.

Physical touch may help relieve stress that is affecting the immune system by:

  • Stimulating the release of dopamine, which helps us experience pleasure

  • Increasing serotonin, a mood stabilizer; and

  • Decreasing the stress hormone cortisol

If you live alone, even seeing your friends regularly or getting a pet can help you experience these benefits.

A woman holding her head from stress while working at a computer.

#5: Make Relationships a Priority

When people get stressed, sometimes their response is to want to shut out the world. But spending quality time with friends and family can allow you to better deal with stress by:

  • Giving you a way to process your emotions

  • Improving your self-esteem; and

  • Allowing you to stay connected to others

Research has led to the conclusion that social bonding can increase levels of the natural stress reliever oxytocin.

#6: Give Yoga a Try

Yoga has been shown to lower the levels of stress hormones in the body. It can also calm the nervous system, reducing inflammation. The deep breathing and centering of the mind associated with yoga may regulate the systems of the body, not only helping you get rid of stress in the moment but also teaching you to deal with it better in everyday life.

Whether you’ve never tried yoga before or are an experienced yogi, you can find classes at your level that will help you process your emotions while getting great exercise at the same time.

#7: Practice Meditation

Meditation allows you to practice mindfulness, in which you train your attention toward a state of mental calm, concentration, and positivity. Research shows that mindfulness meditation can help dial down the body’s response to stress and possibly increase immune function again.

#8: Relax With Breathwork

When you experience stress, focusing on your breathing can help calm you. Breathwork can improve the effects of stress on the immune system by:

  • Elevating your mood

  • Alkalizing blood pH

  • Improving inflammation; and

  • Positively impacting the parasympathetic nervous system.

All of this may have you feeling better in no time!

Before practicing yoga, meditation, or breathwork, some people like to pop a Kalm Drop from Good Bitters to help recenter themselves and focus on their activity. We offer regular and sugar-free, or you may want to use our Kool Balm topically instead.

Balance Is Critical When Dealing With Stress and the Immune System — Good Bitters Can Help

A healthy life is all about balance. At Good Bitters, we want to help you find that balance. We provide holistic care through products, workshops, and coaching services to help you create a healthy, happy, and peaceful life.

The relationship between stress and the immune system is an important one, and we want to do our part to help you relieve stress and boost immunity in our own way. Contact us today to find out how we can help on your road to relieving stress and feeling better. The content in this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition

Disclaimer: The information on this website is taken from traditional wisdom and modern research/databases and is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to act as medical advice or to replace medical treatment. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The statements and information on this website have not been evaluated by the FDA. Please consult a knowledgeable healthcare provider for your individual needs

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