Health

How Stress Attacks the Immune System: Tips for Staying Healthy

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The first study that linked stress to health outcomes was published by a Canadian-Austrian endocrinologist named Hans Selye, in 1930.   The original investigation was an effort to identify hormone functioning, but two separate studies indicated that the rats who were subjected to duress, exhibited swollen adrenal glands, ulcers and other conditions. Selye went on to study and publish over 1,700 medical publications and over thirty books on the link between compromised immunity and stress, and is recognized as the founder of the scientific discussion and evidence based research on the topic.   Before Hans Selye, physicians had no idea that emotional duress could measurably impact health and immunity, but by discovering the presence of cortisol, the scientist was able to understand the chemical internal response to stress. It is now accepted knowledge that stress can not only cause certain health conditions, but it can exacerbate existing ones.  Stress management is more than a discussion about lifestyle and balance, it is a critical aspect of preserving health and wellness.  We’ll share the short and long term impacts of stress on health and immunity, and provide some easy, daily methods and ideas to help manage it.

Linking Stress and Increased Cortisol Levels

Cortisol is one hormone that is released when the body is placed in a fight-or-flight circumstance, a mechanism that humans developed for survival. The adrenal glands are responsible for identifying the need for the hormone, and triggering its release in the body. Cortisol can be released when a human being experiences good stress (eustress) and distress (bad stress), according to Hans Selye.  One of the most important and poignant discoveries through Selye’s research was that a release from the “fight-or-flight” condition was required, in order to prevent excessive levels of cortisol from building up. How can cortisol be discharged from the body?  There are a variety of proven methods according to biochemist Shawn Talbot, PhD, and the author of the book “The Cortisol Connection”. 

Other scientific studies and research indicate that the following methods are effective:

  • Listen to music for a 66% reduction in cortisol levels.
  • Take a nap, or go to bed early for a 50% reduction in cortisol.

  • Drink black tea for a 47% reduction in cortisol levels.

  • Laughter reduces up to 39% of cortisol in the body.

  • Chewing gum can discharge up to 16% of the stress hormone.

Source Web: September, 2016 Prevention.com


Short-Term Health Impacts

What are some of the external or measurable signs and impacts of short-term stress on our health?  Your body is good at communicating the experience of stress through a variety of different, observable symptoms which include:

  • Rapid breathing

  • Increased perspiration

  • Increased heart rate

  • Headaches or joint pain

  • Poor sleep quality

  • Irritability and mood variance

  • Hyperactivity

  • Poorly regulated menstrual cycles


Another short-term symptom of stress can be indigestion, or suppressed appetite.  The symptoms of stress can last a few minutes, or several days, depending on circumstances.  During that time, if cortisol levels are not discharged, your immune system is compromised.


Long-Term Health Risks

Sedentary lifestyle habits contribute an additional complication, and can make it difficult for the body to discharge cortisol.  Meditation, aerobic exercise and other methods are demonstrated to positively reduce cortisol, but many people find it a struggle to incorporate a workout, a walk, or even social time with friends during the workweek.   Could this be the reason that many people feel exhausted by the end of each week? The long-term health risks and symptoms of cumulative cortisol in the body include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression

  • Sleep difficulties

  • Hypertension

  • Heart disease

  • GERD and gastrointestinal inflammation

  • Reduced immunity and viral/bacterial resistance


When the body is stressed and exposed to sustained high-levels of cortisol, organs and systems function in a state of almost constant inflammation.  The chronic inflammation impacts the performance of the immune system (dysregulation), which over time, creates a new vulnerability to infection, chronic and autoimmune diseases. If you feel that stress may be a factor that is impacting your health, we encourage you to speak with your family physician.  Your physician can advise you on the best approach to reduce stressful situations and help you avoid the compounded long-term effects associated with chronic stress.

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