As I worked through hundreds of articles preparing for my upcoming SFM Empower Immune Prepper course, many of the articles had so much potential for impact that I could not wait to share them in the course. This article by Moray et al jumped out with its emphasis on the connection between stress and immune function. I cover the subject in the course, but recognizing the impact of psychosocial stressors on whether or not you succumb to microbial attack is important in today’s setting of pandemania.
Stress refers to external or internal pressure which disturbs the body’s equilibrium and
disrupts its normal processes. This may come in the form of a physical force. It may result from a hurtful relationship. It may come from the fear of a potential threat. It may come from entirely internal thoughts of loneliness or anxiety.
Stress triggers a response by our body to avoid potential harm. Multiple systems are involved but our immune system stands out as one of the primary responders. Within minutes of a perceived stress, our immune system can mobilize certain types of cells in our bloodstream. Inflammatory cytokines, or immune messengers, rise preparing our systems for possible attack. As stress stretches into days or weeks, such chronic stress conditions keep the cytokines elevated and put us at risk for chronic illnesses.
The authors reviewed the impacts of stress in early life and in late life situations. In early life, children who experienced adverse conditions such as abuse or poverty were found to mount different levels of immune reactions to infectious challenges. Levels of antibodies and CRP (an inflammatory marker) were altered in those who had life histories of high stress. In other studies, health conditions in later life could be correlated with early life stress exposures.
In later life, such as when adults are caring for aging parents or spouses, high stress situation affected immune responses then as well. Antibody and immune cell responses were less vigorous in those under high stress. These caregivers were also found to take longer to heal wounds and more likely to reactivate latent viruses. Many would recognize how shingles, a reactivation of chicken pox, can appear during major episodes of stress.
The authors noted that troubled relationships, loneliness, and competitive social interactions have been linked in studies to increased inflammation. Sleep also impacts our immune systems. Studies mentioned in the article round that even one night of sleep deprivation could alter some immune cell functions.
Beyond just influencing whether or not we get a cold or another infection, this stress-immune interaction also appears to play a role in multiple other diseases. Higher cortisol from ongoing stress can exacerbate the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Inflammation appears to play a role in schizophrenia. Autoimmune diseases are exacerbated or occur more often in chronically stressed individuals.
Taken together, these connections are just the tip of the iceberg for stress’ effects on our immune system and the diseases which arise from immune dysfunction. For a Functional MD like myself, I cannot ignore either the emotional and spiritual aspects of my patients or the biological mechanisms which link these psychosocial factors with my patient’s health. My patients are both body and spirit. Furthermore, their body and spirit influence one another in all aspects of their health. I must guide them in both arenas if I hope to see them restored as close as possible to the image God intended for them.
Morey, J. N., et al. (2015). “Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function.” Curr Opin Psychol 5: 13-17.
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.