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The Effect of Stress on the Immune System

What is Stress?

The effect of stress on the immune system is just one of the many ways stress impacts the body. Stress is a normal part of life, it creates change and stimulates the body to learn and grow. Stress was previously called the “fight or flight” response.  In human evolutionary terms we can envision this as a prehistoric human running away from an animal to save himself, or chasing an animal for food. Chronic stress over-stimulates the adrenal glands to produce the stress hormones.  The negative effects this can have on the body include low energy, high blood pressure, infertility, weight gain, digestive and sleep problems, advanced aging, decreased immune system and more!

What is the effect of stress on the immune system?

When you’re chronically stressed, your immune system becomes impaired. The main stress hormone, cortisol, weakens the immune system. The effect of stress on the immune system depends on the duration and degree of the stress. During times of intense stress, the immune system is unable to react and fight off infection. Often times, as soon as the stress calms down or a person is able to rest, they fall ill. A classic example of this is a stressed-out student. They study frantically and survive their exams, then as soon as the last exam is written, they get a bad cold. This is because the stress is gone and the body is now able to create an immune response which causes the symptoms of being sick. For these individuals, managing the body’s response to acute stress can boost immunity to cold and flu.

Someone who is chronically stressed for long periods of time may have more frequent colds and flus because the body is no longer able to keep up with the demand of cortisol. This is referred to as ‘burn-out’ or ‘adrenal fatigue’. These individuals get sick multiple times per year and are generally exhausted all the time. To reduce the number of colds and flus, this person needs to rebuild their healthy, normal stress response and allow the adrenal gland to recover.

Stress can impact the immune system in more than one way. While you may not be able to change the amount or type of stress in your life, there are ways to manage the effect of stress on your body.