Stress and immune system health
Stress is something that most of us are familiar with. 63% of Australians aged 15 and over report having at least one personal stressor in their life. For 13% of Australian adults, they report that the psychological stress or distress they suffer from is at high or very high levels. For women, that number sits at 15%.
As a General Practitioner, Dr Jill Gamberg says that the number of presentations of people that are feeling burnt out, overwhelmed or stressed is significant.
If you’re concerned about how stress and immune system health are connected, Dr Jill shares her insights on the effects stress can have on your body. But, as always, if you’re concerned, please see your GP.
Stress isn’t always a bad thing
Dr Jill wants you to know that not all stress is bad. When it’s acute stress related to our body’s natural fight or flight response, it’s actually a good thing.
“The fight or flight response is a natural bodily response to danger. It’s a protective mechanism. It may become a problem when you’re in fight or flight mode all day, for many days in a row without reprieve. That’s chronic stress, or otherwise known as distress or negative stress,” she says.
Dr Jill advises you may experience physical, mental and emotional side effects of stress when you’re experiencing chronic stress.
The physical effects of stress
Of the physical manifestations of stress, Dr Jill says that someone under chronic stress may experience the following:
- difficulty falling or staying asleep
- loss of appetite
- binge eating
- muscle tension in the neck
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- behaviour or mood changes
- feelings of irritability or anger
- challenges dealing with things you normally deal with (e.g., work or kids)
“If you’re experiencing any of those symptoms, your stress might be affecting you,” says Dr Jill, “That’s when it may be time to reach out to your healthcare provider for more support.”
Stress, cortisol and the immune system
Are you ready to learn some interesting facts about the immune system for you to add to your knowledge bank?
First up, there are two terms you should understand that relate to stress and the immune system – cortisol and cytokines.
Cortisol is a hormone that is released when your body is under stress. Cortisol is what helps your body in its fight or flight response so it’s kind of a big deal.
Cytokines are immunomodulating proteins. At a very basic level, their role in the immune system and the body’s immune response is to carry messages and help cells communicate and adapt.
So how do cortisol, cytokines, stress and immunity all work together? Both cortisol and cytokines are a normal part of a healthy immune system. Your immune system can be negatively impacted when chronic stress affects the production of cortisol and cytokines.
Here’s how it goes. When you’re under chronic stress, your body may start to release more cortisol. Normally that’s OK, but too much stress is a problem. Why? When you deal with excessive or chronic stress, it can detrimentally impact your cytokine and cortisol response, and affect your immune system.
Dealing with stress
You might be familiar with the positive effects of exercise on our immune system and our physical and mental health in general.
Dr Jill says that you could also use physical activity, such as a game of basketball or dancing with the kids, to help you deal with the effects of stress. While everyone is different, Dr Jill also recommends a range of other stress-management strategies.
“You can try meditation, mindfulness, sleep, laughter, listening to music or reading a book - any of those things that give you joy. We all need to stay socially connected so going for a coffee with friends or catching up with family over FaceTime may also help to manage stress,” she says.
The wonders of the immune system
The immune system is truly amazing. But it’s also extraordinarily complex and mind-boggling. If you’re experiencing stress, or have any concerns about your immune system health, be sure to speak to your GP or health practitioner.
Dr Jill Gamberg is a General Practitioner and one of the first Australian Lifestyle Medicine Physicians whose goal is to help prevent disease and maintain wellness with evidence-based practice, and to passionately improve health literacy.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board September2021.