Chronic Stress and Immunity

Spring has sprung! The beautiful weather makes us worry less about coughs, colds, and flu germs than we did in dreary February. But even as spring’s soggy weather and low pressure systems can lower our immune systems, the biggest culprit in any season is stress.

Every year, a higher percentage of Americans report experiencing stress in their everyday lives, particularly those 30 and under. This has spurred medical and wellness professionals to try to get to the bottom of stress as a physiological response and what the long-term impacts might be. There are deeper, more profound effects beyond just the noticeable, physical symptoms (chest tightness, heart pounding, nausea, jumpiness).

Stress is a primal response to a perceived threat that evolved as a way to react quickly to dangerous situations. When faced with the threatening stimulus, the hypothalamus, nestled at the base of the brain, sets off a full-body alarm. The alarm prompts the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. The purpose of this surge of hormones, in an evolutionary sense, is to prepare the body to confront essentially a life-or-death situation. Adrenaline increases the heart rate, and cortisol changes the way the body accesses and consumes stored energy to prioritize immediate action. The body is ready for fight or flight.

A high level of cortisol in the bloodstream suppresses all bodily functions not necessary to this reaction, including digestion, reproduction, and immunity. When a person is under constant stress, the impact on the immune system can be drastic. Researchers have observed that high levels of cortisol correlate with a drop of the level of lymphocytes (infection-fighting white blood cells) in the bloodstream. This weakens our body’s ability to fight pathogens, leaving us more susceptible to disease or infection.

There is a positive side to this increased awareness about stress. Now that the extent of the damage is more well-researched and understood, we are all — doctors and patients alike — able take it more seriously as a health issue, rather dismissing it as a fleeting state of mind or mood.

Stress can really make you sick. It’s time to take it seriously. Mindful exercise practices, such as yoga, can help, as can massage and acupuncture. While they can’t fix a crushing career set-back or make a toxic relationship disappear, they can certainly help you find the personal balance and groundedness that it takes in order to work towards a more stress-free, and healthy life.

Clara E.
Originally from upstate New York, Clara moved to Brooklyn in the spring of 2017 to finish her undergraduate degree and pursue her passions for architectural restoration, music composition, and visual art. She works as a receptionist at Element. In her free time, Clara likes to explore new neighborhoods, go to museums, and play the piano.