When was the last time you heard someone say “I’m so stressed” or you uttered these words yourself? If you feel like you hear—or use—the word “stress” on a regular basis, you’re far from alone. Over half of the U.S. population reports that they feel stressed during the day and 63 percent of U.S. workers say they’re ready to quit their jobs to avoid work-related stress.
It’s not your imagination if you feel worse physically when you’re stressed out. Stress isn’t just unpleasant to deal with; it can actually compromise your health in very real ways. Your immune system is hit particularly hard by stress, leaving you more susceptible to infections and many other issues that you may not realize are related to compromised immunity.
Here’s what you should know about the relationship between stress and immunity, plus some tips for supporting your body—and inner defenses—amidst stressful times.
How Stress Impacts Your Immunity
Stress changes your body in many ways, especially when you experience it continuously. Consider this: If you live a highly stressful life, your body responds as though you’re under actual threat, like being chased by a lion (even if you’re not).
So, your body—most notably your nervous system—basically switches into survival mode (a.k.a. “fight or flight” mode”) and stays there all the time. We call this state of being “sympathetic overdrive”. Unfortunately, this can wreak havoc on your immune system and cause all kinds of health problems.
Sympathetic overdrive activates the release of hormones such as cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone made by the adrenal gland that regulates metabolism and can suppress your immune response. In addition to increasing glucose levels in the body (so that you have the energy to run away from that lion!), cortisol also acts like a steroid. This means that it decreases the activity of T-cells, an important kind of immune cell, and reduces antibody production, another important component of your immune defense system. In the short term, cortisol lowers inflammation, but in the long run, its immune-suppressing actions impair the body’s ability to fight off infections.
Not only does stress throw off your hormones, but it also alters the composition of your gut microbiome, the three to five pounds of bacteria that reside in your digestive tract and are responsible for everything from mood and memory to cravings, metabolism, and—you guessed it—immunity. The imbalance of bacteria caused by stress impairs your gut function, breaking down the specialized barrier that normally protects you from harmful substances and bacteria that could otherwise enter the bloodstream.
When sympathetic overdrive causes this barrier to become too permeable (a state often referred to as “leaky gut”), those harmful compounds, toxins, and organisms can enter the bloodstream. This can disrupt digestion and nutrient absorption, leading to symptoms like bloating, gas, burping, and even diarrhea or constipation.
When microbes or undigested proteins that your gut barrier would normally prevent from entering systemic circulation do pass through because of a leaky gut, your immune system can also become over-activated all the time. In fact, this is why stress-related impaired gut function has been linked to increased inflammation in the body. When you are more inflamed, you’re more likely to experience migraines, weight gain, brain fog, and even low mood. The resulting impaired immunity, meanwhile, can lead to food allergies, eczema or acne, autoimmune issues, and more.
How To Keep Stress From Wrecking Your Immunity
So, what can you do to address stress and get yourself out of sympathetic overdrive? Basic lifestyle changes can take you a long way. From there, natural supplements and herbal remedies really shine. Consider the following your top-priority to-do items.
1. Get Sleep
Make sure you’re going to bed at a reasonable hour and allowing yourself to get sufficient sleep. While there are plenty of things you can do to promote better sleep, no shortcut or hack can replace getting the rest you need each night. Seven to nine hours per night is ideal.
2. Clean up your diet
Eat less sugar and more whole, unprocessed foods. Include healthy fats, proteins, and plenty of fruit and veggies. Watching out for any desire to lean on junk food is huge here; most people have a tendency to snack when they’re feeling stressed out, so make sure you have good, nutrient-dense options for yourself when you need to munch. Think chopped veggies dipped in hummus or guacamole, or roasted and salted nuts.
3. Move your body
Whether it’s a short and vigorous workout at the gym, a long, meandering walk in the park, or going out for some salsa dancing, how you move is less important than the fact that you get moving. Your immune system responds very well to movement of all kinds, so make it a part of your daily routine. For an extra bonus, take your exercise to nature. Evidence suggests that simply being in the forest increases your natural killer cells, which gives your immune system an extra boost.
4. Incorporate adaptogens into Your Routine
Adaptogens are a fantastic category of herbs that both support immunity and help the body manage stress. Adaptogens like ashwagandha, reishi, Asian ginseng, tulsi, rhodiola, and schizandra each offer their own unique balancing properties to your immune system, hormones, mood, and stress levels. You can make yourself tulsi tea or find one of these botanicals in supplement form to try daily. If you’d like some guidance for finding the perfect option or combination for you, getting support from a local herbalist or one of The Vitamin Shoppe’s experts can make all the difference!
Dr. Shetreat is a neurologist, herbologist, and author of The Dirt Cure, in which she presents a nutritional plan for getting and keeping children healthy. She works and studies with indigenous communities and healers from around the world, and is the founder of the Terrain Institute, where she teaches earth-based programs for transformational healing.