Why stress and our Immune System don’t get on!

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by Biliana –

We have all experienced one of these 2 scenarios: – falling ill on the first day of a holiday, – feel our heart rate go through the roof at the mere thought of a threatening situation! It tuns out that this is characteristic of how humans handle stress. We are pretty unique in our stress response: it serves us well in survival situations but is detrimental to our health if sustained in the long-term.

For all mammals, stress is about maximising the energy that muscles have available to them, to flee danger & find food mostly. This work needs some pretty nifty and energy-consuming muscle activation! To boost our energy levels, glucose and fat are moved through cells into the bloodstream. Out heart rate, blood pressure and breathing all increase to transport nutrients and oxygen more quickly. Happy days!

While this is happening, bodily functions that do not contribute to solving the immediate danger are all put on hold as a way to save energy. Digestionand tissue repair, for example, grind to a halt, while sex drive decreases and the immune system is inhibited!

It makes perfect sense – why waste valuable energy stores on producing sperm or managing infections that are not immediately life-threatening? On top of that, stress causes certain cognitive functions skillsto become enhanced and our sensory system – sharper. This is a great boost to detecting a barely noticeable sound or sight in the Savannah, but think about your physiological response to watching the news or seeing loo roll disappearing from the supermarket shelves!

These protective measures, while helpful, are super taxing to the body in the long run. If we constantly, and involuntarily, turn off important long-term maintenance functions, nothing in the body will ever get repaired. As a result, you will have less surplus energy, meaning greater fatigue, an increased risk for ulcers and greater vulnerability to infectious disease.

We could go on with this physiology lecture, but I sense the eyelids are starting to droop. What am I getting at? We are currently going through an unprecedented amount of stress, at a global scale. So how can we help ourselves and others mitigate the side-effects of stress? Research has demonstrated some helpful practices:

  • taking responsibility for the things you can control (and practice a degree of acceptance for the things you cannot change) brings relief as you regain a bit of control over your life.
  • Providing social support (or turn to a friend for help) is an extremely effective preventative measure against stressors. On average, “married” people are generally healthier than singles, as couples both give and receive support.
  • Recognising what stress you can solve, or when you need to find a way of altering your perception instead. This will not make the stress disappear, but it will alter the way your nervous system makes sense of it.

So, how do we action these concepts? It turns out this is not rocket science, but the benefits are cosmic:

Find your own personal outlet for stress. For some, this will be physical exercise, for others – gardening, massage, meditation, a walk in nature, helping the elderly in your community. What matters here is less about WHAT you do, but whether you actually ENJOY doing it. Only then will the activity pull you out of a stressful frame of mind.

And remember, reducing stress has the direct effect of enhancing your immune system, digestion, sex drive …Every single physiological, emotional and cognitive system in your body will thank you for making time for a purposeful stress-reducing activity.

For more fascinating insights on this topic, I recommend reading Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

15th March 2020