No matter your current situation, chances are you’re under some amount of stress right now — potentially a lot of it. And unfortunately, as the coronavirus crisis drags on, all the new changes and challenges we’re dealing with, along with worries over health, finances, jobs, and the future overall can turn our stress chronic.
And that’s bad news for your immune system — especially at a time when we need our natural defenses more than ever. Keep reading to get a sense of how stress works and its power over your well-being, plus natural steps you can take to shake it off and protect your health.
Stress: Acute vs. Chronic
More than anything, stress today is caused by a sense of lack of control. When it feels like we have no power over what’s happening around us, or when perceived demands outpace perceived resources (such as time, abilities, or money), we feel threatened. And that activates the body’s fight-or-flight response, which triggers a surge of adrenaline and other changes in the body.
Initially, the fight-or-flight reaction evolved to help us humans deal with the kind of acute threats our ancient ancestors faced — like, say, being chased by a hungry animal or protecting one’s (limited) food supply. The adrenaline works to shift and mobilize all your body’s resources toward dealing with the threat at hand and short-term survival:
- Your reflexes, vision and attention all become acute and hyper-focused.
- Glucose mobilizes so you can access it for quick, powerful bursts of energy.
- Maintenance functions like digestion and other normal, everyday functions not immediately required to handle an acute threat are put on hold or do only the bare minimum.
Today, we can still occasionally face the kind of short-term threats and stress that the fight-or-flight response was designed for. But we’re much more likely to experience psychological threats or stress: Feeling threatened rather than facing an actual physical threat that requires a physical response.
The thing is, your body can’t tell the difference, so it reacts in the only way it knows how — with the fight-or-flight reaction. The problem, of course, is that psychological stress usually requires different tools and resources for coping, and it’s not usually as short-lived as the kind of stress our ancestors dealt with.
Sure, fight-or-flight mode could help you deal when you’re pushing to meet a deadline or dealing with some other stressful challenge, task, or situation. And as such, that type of psychological stress is usually manageable and has negligible side effects.
But people easily find themselves trapped in a stressed state for several days, weeks, or even years. We’re often our own worst enemies when it comes to prolonging stress: We don’t take steps to properly cope or deal , nor do we give ourselves time and healthy opportunities to come down from heightened states of stress.
Instead, the mind is allowed to dwell on challenges and see each one as a major threat. We also tend to create schedules and fill them with too much, and put lots of pressure on ourselves to meet certain standards. Then, at the end of the day, we continue that adrenaline rush by watching other people stress out via suspenseful movies or TV shows, or we feed our brains a stream of negative, stress-inducing news. Over time, all of this combined pressure has serious consequences.
The Dangers of Chronic Stress
Your body’s not designed to operate in a long-term fight-or-flight state, and it throws your entire immune system out of whack — along with its ability to launch an effective and correct immune response. The results of stress-induced immune dysregulation can be devastating for your health and longevity, putting you at risk for a range of problems.
For example, research shows chronic stress can lead to or make chronic conditions like heart disease worse. It’s also been linked to shorter telomere length along with increased disease in older adults.
Telomeres are tiny caps on the end of strands of DNA; they shorten each time a cell divides, until they eventually get too short and the cell dies. Because of that, telomere length is a good indicator of how healthy your cells are, and of your overall longevity, too.
You’re also more likely to get sick in the short-term when chronically stressed, meaning your body’s less able to fight off viruses and other infections. People who are chronically stressed, for instance, are more likely to get a cold when exposed to those germs, they often take longer to recover, and their symptoms are more severe.
When you’re stressed, the changes to your immune system can also trigger a flare-up of inflammatory conditions. Stress can both increase the risk of developing an autoimmune disease and make it harder to manage.
How Stress Interferes With Your Immune System
So what’s going on exactly? Well, it’s no one thing, but a main issue is chronic unregulated inflammation. Let me explain.
When energy resources are diverted because of stress, your immune system is unable to coordinate properly with other systems. Plus, all of your systems become overtaxed, and cells are pushed harder than ever. The harder cells and systems must work, the more cellular debris, free radicals, and other “trash” they produce. What’s more, with your immune system on the fritz, microbes are also able to flourish, and they produce their own excess debris and byproducts.
Your immune system is responsible for cleaning up your body’s waste, which it does by producing more inflammation in the form of free radicals and acids that break down the debris. Under normal, healthy circumstances, your body balances the effects and mitigates the damage.
However in chronic stress situations, overworked cells are pumping out extra inflammation-causing debris, and your immune system — which is suffering the effects of stress, too — is pumping out excess inflammation and still can’t keep up. It easily becomes overwhelmed and can malfunction. The result: Inflammation that rages out of control and causes all sorts of problems.
Normally, the stress hormone cortisol plays a role in regulating your body’s immune responses and inflammation. Under short-term stress, when cortisol levels spike, they dampen the body’s inflammatory response in order to conserve energy (because, remember, your body thinks you’ll need it for fighting or fleeing).
But when cortisol is chronically elevated, research suggests you become less sensitive to it, another factor in why inflammation gets out of control. Excess, uncontrolled inflammation is one potential reason you’re more susceptible to catching a cold or other infection — your immune system simply can’t properly respond to the threat from a virus invasion, and with inflammation already raging, symptoms are likely to be worse.
Studies also suggest that under chronic stress, your body’s natural killer cells — which normally roam your system and attack foreign invaders before they can take over and do real damage — also get weaker. That’s no surprise considering that when cells of the immune system are stressed, they tend to burn out faster.
The Stress-Immune System-Gut Connection
Earlier we discussed how chronic stress interferes with normal digestion because it isn’t a priority when you’re in fight-or-flight mode. That includes slowing gastric mobility, which means you’re not unloading excess bacteria like you normally would, and all microbes are allowed to flourish.
All those microbes overload your system with excess waste, which contributes to inflammation that can also damage your GI tract and send pathogens and other microbes throughout your system. Left unchecked by your immune system, the microbes can mess with all your systems and throw normal functioning even more off track.
5 Ways to Balance Stress and Promote Calm
1. Go For a Walk.
If you think about the effects of stress in terms of the fight-or-flight reaction, the natural resolution is action or moving — either physically fighting something or running away. Expending energy is what your body expects, and so it’s the number one thing you can do to diffuse stress and help normalize your hormones. Research also suggests that exercise boosts levels of the neuromodulator norepinephrine, which may help the brain deal with stress.
The physical activity you choose needn’t be intense — walking or some yoga stretches can be enough to lower adrenaline, use up the excess glucose that’s been mobilized, and calm your systems down. Even a 10-minute brisk walk was shown to improve mood, according to one study published in the journal Health Promotion Perspectives.
Along with using exercise to diffuse acute feelings of stress, try to keep up a regular exercise routine. Research shows that people who are active show a lower spike in stress hormones when faced with stress.
Exercise also helps keep your immune and other systems in top form, which is a good place to start when faced with excess or long-term stress. And higher levels of healthy behaviors (a good diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep) were all shown to protect against stress-induced telomere shortening, according to research in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
2. Prioritize Sleep.
Sleep is key for mitigating the effects of chronic stress for a few reasons. It gives your brain a chance to rest, recharge, and reboot — which is essential for helping you better cope with stressors and perceived threats.
It also helps normalize hormones and gives your subconscious time to work through problems. One study, for example, found that workers who slept five or fewer hours a night were much more likely to report high levels of stress.
However one of sleep’s most important functions is facilitating your body’s waste-removal systems. When you sleep, your metabolism, digestion, and certain brain and other functions all slow down, which gives your immune and detoxification systems a chance to get to work. It’s when they’re most efficient at cleaning up all the cellular and other garbage in your brain and throughout the body.
Research has repeatedly shown just how key sleep is at boosting your immunity. For example, poor sleep and shorter nights makes you more susceptible to coming down with a cold when exposed to a rhinovirus, according to research in the Archives of Internal Medicine. One study even found you’re about four times as likely to catch a cold if you don’t get enough sleep — and that poor sleep was the most important factor predicting whether someone got a cold or not.
Unfortunately, stress often makes it difficult to get quality sleep and enough of it, trapping you in a stressed-and-sleepless vicious cycle. Staying active during the day is your best bet for breaking out of this rut. Not only does it help reduce stress and keep adrenaline down, exercise has also been proven to improve sleep, too.
A few more sleep-bringing tips: Avoid watching TV or using any blue-light emitting screens (including smartphones) in the hour or two leading up to bedtime. Cut back on caffeine after about noon, and make sure your room is cool and dark.
3. Lean On Your Friends and Family.
Positive social support is a proven stress fighter and immunity booster — it’s soothing because we’re social creatures and tend to feel less threatened when we feel like we’re part of a “tribe.” It goes all the way back to ancient humans; we’ve always lived in bands and groups. So being around other people and connecting with them tends to be relaxing.
Research has indeed shown that strong and varied social ties increases resilience to stress and buffers its negative effects. Those bonds also help keep you healthy even independent of its effects on stress. For example, in one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, people with the most ties to friends, relatives, and their communities were the least likely to come down with a cold after exposure.
During these times of social distancing, when you can’t physically be with your loved ones, connect with them in other ways. Reach out on the phone or via video chats, or send emails or letters to let them know you’re thinking about them. Even just sitting on your front porch and waving hello to passersby is a great reminder that you’re not alone.
And, of course, if you’re truly struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask those close to you to check in on you often. That’s key, since social isolation and feelings of loneliness have been found to weaken your immune system.
4. Use Stress-Balancing Herbs.
Adaptogenic herbs naturally help your body balance and reduce its stress response. They contain phytochemicals similar to the neurotransmitters in our own bodies that have a calming effect on our systems. Three to try:
Long known as a revitalizing herb, ashwagandha has the ability to promote balance and focus and reduce stress. It works by supporting and restoring balance to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), a central hormone pathway that plays a key role in pumping out stress hormones like cortisol, as well as regulating functions like sleep.
Essentially, ashwagandha helps counter some of the negative feedback coming in due to stress, which helps lower cortisol. In one study of chronically stressed people, those who took ashwagandha saw an up to 30% reduction in cortisol levels compared to people who took a placebo. They also had lower markers of inflammation.
An amino acid our body produces naturally, l-theanine is also found in green tea and certain mushrooms. It competes in your system with stress-associated excitable neurotransmitters, helping you feel naturally calmer but without a sedative effect. Research published in the journal Nutrients and other studies suggest that l-theanine supplements help reduce some of the most common effects of chronic stress, including sleep issues, anxiety, and reduced cognitive function.
Chinese Tree Bark Extracts
A combination of two bark extracts — magnolia and philodendron — has been used for 1,500 years to promote calm and balance stress hormones. Like ashwagandha, the extracts work by supporting and normalizing hormones and adrenal function via the HPA axis.
Research shows that the combination of the two extracts leads to lower levels of cortisol. Study participants also reported better moods and said they felt less stressed, tense, and fatigued.
5. Try Calming Herbs for Extra, Intermittent Support.
Herbs like those mentioned above normalize your body’s stress response without making you sleepy. For that reason, you can take them long-term to feel more of a calm and steady type of energy throughout the day. However, when you’re feeling particularly anxious, you may want or need more of a sedative effect to help you relax and sleep.
Herbs such as bacopa, passionflower, and motherwort do exactly that. They work by affecting the brain’s gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) system. GABA is an important neurotransmitter that naturally rises in the evening to help you relax and induce sleep.
Bacopa is especially beneficial. An adaptogenic herb, research suggests that, along with its sedative effects, bacopa could help reduce cortisol levels and support healthy immune and cognitive function.
It’s important to understand, though, that these and other sedative herbs are best used only in the short-term — a few days or weeks at a time. Otherwise, the herbs may interfere with your body’s natural ability to make and use GABA.
However you choose to address stress, know that your best bet is to take a multifaceted approach. Herbs can play a key role, but lifestyle changes and health-promoting behaviors are also extremely important. Mindfulness and reframing of stressful situations can also go a long way to help you feel calmer in the moment. Best of all, all of these practices will ultimately keep you healthier, too.
1. Dimsdale, Joel E. “Psychological Stress and Cardiovascular Disease.” J Am Coll Cardiol. 2008 Apr 1; 51(13): 1237–1246.
2. Cohen, Sheldon et al. “Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Apr 17; 109(16): 5995–5999.
3. Morey, Jennifer N. et al. “Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function.”
Curr Opin Psychol. 2015 Oct 1; 5: 13–17.
4. Segerstrom, Suzanne C. and Miller, Gregory E. “Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry.” Psychol Bull. 2004 Jul; 130(4): 601–630.
5. Edwards, Meghan K. and Loprinzi, Paul D. “Experimental effects of brief, single bouts of walking and meditation on mood profile in young adults.” Health Promot Perspect. 2018; 8(3): 171–178.
6. Puterman, E. et al. “Determinants of telomere attrition over 1 year in healthy older women: stress and health behaviors matter.” Mol Psychiatry. 2015 Apr;20(4):529-35.
7. Choi, Dong-Woo et al. “Association between Sleep Duration and Perceived Stress: Salaried Worker in Circumstances of High Workload.” Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Apr; 15(4): 796.
8. Cohen, Sheldon et al. “Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold.”
Arch Intern Med. 2009 Jan 12; 169(1): 62–67.
9. Prather, AA et al. “Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold.” Sleep. 2015 Sep 1;38(9):1353-9.
10. Ozbay, Faith et al. “Social Support and Resilience to Stress: From Neurobiology to Clinical Practice.” Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2007 May; 4(5): 35–40.
11. Sherman, Stephanie M. et al. “Social support, stress and the aging brain.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2016 July; 11(7): 1050-1058
12. Cohen, Sheldon et al. “Social Ties and Susceptibility to the Common Cold.” JAMA 1997; 277(24): 1940-1944
13. Cohen, Sheldon. “The Pittsburgh Common Cold Studies: Psychosocial Predictors of Susceptibility to Respiratory Infectious Illness.” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2005 Feb. 12(3): 123-31
14. American Psychological Association. “Stress Weakens the Immune System.” Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/research/action/immune
15. Auddy, Biswajit et al. “A standardized Extract Significantly Reduces Stress-Related Parameters in Chronically Stressed Humans: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study.” Journal for the Anthropology of North America. 2008. 11(1): 50-57
16. Hidese, Shinsuke et al. “Effects of L-Theanine Administration on Stress-Related Symptoms and Cognitive Functions in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Nutrients. 2019 Oct; 11(10): 2362.
17. Kim, Suhyeon et al. “GABA and l-theanine mixture decreases sleep latency and improves NREM sleep.” Pharm Biol. 2019; 57(1): 65–73.
18. White, DJ et al. “Anti-Stress, Behavioural and Magnetoencephalography Effects of an L-Theanine-Based Nutrient Drink: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Trial.” Nutrients. 2016 Jan 19;8(1).
19. Talbott, Shawn et al. “Effect of Magnolia officinalis and Phellodendron amurense (Relora®) on cortisol and psychological mood state in moderately stressed subjects.” J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013; 10: 37.
20. Sheikh, N. et al. “Effect of Bacopa monniera on stress induced changes in plasma corticosterone and brain monoamines in rats.” J Ethnopharmacol. 2007 May 22;111(3):671-6.
21. Russo, A and Borrelli F. “Bacopa monniera, a reputed nootropic plant: an overview.” Phytomedicine. 2005 Apr;12(4):305-17.