Stress can make any and every condition worse. Stress and the immune system are intertwined. We need to protect ourselves and that’s what stress and the immune system prepares us for – protection. The stress response prepares us to fight or flee and the immune system protects us against foreign invaders such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. This ability to adapt to change with stability is critical to survival. However, too much stress results in wear and tear and disrupts both stress and the immune system.
Our brains send out signals to the stress and immune system that results in an outpouring of cortisol, the stress hormone and immune transmitters – regulators of the immune system. We get a peak response and then when the threat is removed, everything goes back to normal. If you get repeated signals to the stress and immune system, they stop responding normally.
Repeated stress affects brain function by impairing memory and decreasing its reliability and accuracy. High levels of cortisol dampen the brain’s response to it. This leads to an unregulated release of cortisol, oxidative stress and excitation of neurons. Regulatory control of the normal feedback loops is lost. When cortisol drops and stays low, the result is pain, fatigue and heightened sensitivity to stress.
Cortisol, the stress hormone has a major effect on the immune system as well. High cortisol causes oxidative stress, increased inflammation and decreased energy production in the mitochondria – the powerhouse of our cells. Over time, the cell signaling to start and stop the immune response is lost. As your cortisol decreases, inflammation increases and the immune system does not respond appropriately. It can’t defend against bacteria, viruses, and fungi and the stage is set for illness. Autoimmune disorders, infection, inflammation, depression, memory impairment, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia can be the result of chronic unrelenting stress and the immune system dysregulation.
Diagnosing Stress and the Immune System Disorders
Measure cortisol in saliva.
It is best to do a 4 point cortisol test, that is collect saliva throughout the day – early morning, mid afternoon, late afternoon and evening. Oftentimes people have normal blood cortisol when the first wake up but it can be too high or too low throughout the day. You won’t know this unless you measure it. Cortisol should be high in the morning and decrease throughout the day being the lowest at night before you go to sleep. A flat curve is a sign of burnout and is associated with chronic fatigue, pain, and fibromyalgia. It has also been associated with increased risk of breast and metastatic cancer, heart attacks and hardening of the arteries.
While there are many other tests for the stress and immune system, most are not covered by insurance and are not necessary. The cortisol curve gives a good indication of what stage of stress you are in. High cortisol decreases inflammation and as it goes down inflammation increases.
Treating Stress and the Immune System Disorders
While we can’t change the stress around us, we can change our reaction to it.
Some effective stress management techniques are cognitive behavioral therapy, learning better coping strategies, reframing the situation, changing our attitudes and beliefs about it.
I like to think of the Serenity Prayer: Accept the things you cannot change, Change the things you can and Have the Wisdom to know the difference. While it’s easier said than done, when there is a will, there is a way and you can accomplish what you set your mind to.
Deep belly breathing and other relaxation techniques can have a profound effect on stress and the immune system. Deep belly breathing can be done anytime, anywhere and in any situation. Take a deep breath while expanding your belly, hold for a few seconds then let it out slowly. After doing a few rounds of this, your adrenaline release will stop or slow down and so will your cortisol release and it’s dampening effect on the immune system. Others find it soothing to walk in nature, practice prayer, yoga, or tai chi. Getting lost in a non-stressful hobby that brings joy can have a positive effect on stress and the immune system.
Herbs can have a calming effect on stress and anxiety and some enhance the immune system making you more resilient and less reactive to stress and less prone to infection. Here are some that have studies that prove effectiveness.
Magnolia and Phellodendron
Take adrenal adaptogens, such as a combination of magnolia and Phellodendron known as Relora 250-300 mg, 3 times a day. This is not sedating, has anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects, and normalizes cortisol.
L-theanine is another favorite. It promotes alertness and calm in the face of stress. A dose of 50-200 mg 2 to 4 times a day with a maximum dose of 1200 mg per day can really help anxiety. There have not been any reports of toxicity or side effects and it can favorably modulate stress and the immune system.
Plant sterolins, such as Moducare, can enhance the regulation of the immune system by allowing the immune response to turn on or off appropriately. It also enhances the response of natural killer cells to fight infection. Take 1-2 capsules of 20 mg sterols and 200 mcg sterolins 3 times a day to decrease infections.
Armed with knowledge and strategies, you can mitigate the damaging effects of stress and prevent stress-related illness. Seek the advice of a functional medicine physician who can tailor a program to your specific needs and recommend pure and potent products that have proven benefits.
Dr. Lorraine Maita is a recognized and award-winning holistic, functional, and anti-aging physician and author. She transforms people’s lives by getting to the root cause of illness using the best of science and nature. Her approach is personalized, precision medicine where you are treated as the unique individual you are. She offers a variety of services geared towards bettering both mind and body. Schedule your consultation today and get one step closer to living younger!