There now exists ample scientific evidence to suggest that stress impairs the immune system, which allows underlying infections to cause damage. Relax, let's do something about stress!
I have always found that the patients we see as who are “continually sick” with infections are the ones who have a tendency to suffer from long-term low-grade stress. Among adults, job and financial worries are often among the leading contributors to stress, but increased crime, violence, peer pressure leading to substance abuse (alcohol and drugs like ecstasy, cannabis and methamphetamine), social isolation, loneliness, and family problems can also create stress-related problems. Stress is not only creating problems with adults, but is increasingly causing health problems among children, teenagers and the elderly.
When I grew up in the 60s, stress didn’t seem to be the buzzword it is today. Sure, people did drugs,it was most likely pot, but nothing like today. No MDMA, fentanyl, ice or other crap of that magnitude. Alcohol was a problem, but today, alcohol-related problems are very much out of control. In 2019, alcohol caused almost 400 deaths per day in the USA. To be more precise, I worked it out to be 15 alcohol deaths per hour, of every day of the entire year.
Who can remember the 1950s? Children could walk to school and high school massacres were unheard of, although homicides happened a lot too back then. In the 21st century, we have become an increasingly violent, hurried, worried and sick society. According to The Washington Post, (July 2022) there have been over 300 mass shootings so far in 2022. It is almost incomprehensible what level of stress the friends and family of those slain in these mass murders must be experiencing.
Baby boomers today are much more prone to stress related illness like diabetes, heart disease and cancer than our forebears ever were. It is the immune system that is particularly affected by chronic low grade stress, and these are the things we see in the clinic daily. We see allergies, auto-immune diseases and many cases of cancer. We see some patients who are “always sick” or people who have become chronically fatigued from the hurry and worry of modern life.
Most people today associate stress with worry, but stress has a much broader definition in the workings of your body. I’ve always noted that patients rarely see themselves as living under much stress, or feeling stressed at all. Any kind of change, whether it be emotional, environmental, an illness, hormonal or just pushing yourself too hard, can be stressful to your body. Even positive events, such as getting a promotion at work or taking a vacation, can be stressful and can gradually weaken your health before you realise what is happening.
If you have recently experienced a change in your sleep patterns, feel fatigued, anxious or a lack of enjoyment for life, or have multiple aches and pains, it is highly likely that stress is playing a role.
Research by Dr. Hans Selye, the first scientist who discovered that stress made people sick, found something quite amazing. He discovered that animals which were restrained died quicker from stress than animals which were harmed. How does this relate to humans? An example of a person living constrained could be a woman with a newborn baby (or who is in an unhappy relationship), existing merely like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The same goes for a teacher trying to teach a class of unruly students, or the air traffic controller, with too many decisions to make under very high pressure, or an adult woman looking after her sick daughter or elderly mother.
We placed our elderly mother in a nursing home at 78 yrs of age after a stroke. After developing dementia, she was proving to be more than a handful. After a life of independence, our mother could not “relinquish control” and felt very stressed, almost like the animal in Dr. Selye’s experiments, tied to a chair. It wasn’t ever going to end good with somebody as determined and unwilling to adapt to her changing situation.
Research has found that psychological stress in human beings can take a hefty toll on the immune system by reducing the concentration of cytokines, proteins that help to ward off infections. Cytokines are proteins that are produced by cells of the immune system in order to regulate the body’s response to disease and infection.
Research discovered that people under chronic low grade stress had above-normal levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), an immune-system protein that promotes inflammation, potentially leading to heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, severe infections and certain cancers.
Stress increases levels of IL-6, which speeds up a variety of age-related diseases. Stress can weaken a person’s immune response, leaving them much more susceptible to infection, and can lead to unhealthy lifestyle habits. For instance, stress often leads people to overeat, insomnia, and neglect exercise, drink alcohol and coffee, all of which can create health problems in their own right. Many people are simply too tired to enjoy life today.
In one study, skin wounds on the arms of women who had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol had lower levels of key compounds released by the body to mediate healing. Stress may make it easier for germs to infect skin wounds, as researchers have proved. Investigators created skin wounds in mice that were exposed to stressful living conditions. The researchers then applied Streptococcus bacteria to the wounds, and compared the healing rates of the stressed mice with those of mice with skin wounds that were also exposed to the bacteria but did not undergo the same levels of stress.
Mice that were stressed prior to wounding and infection showed a 30% delay in wound healing at 3 and 5 days compared with the mice that were not stressed, the report shows. In addition, the investigators found that after 5 days, the stressed mice had 100,000 times more opportunistic bacteria in their wounds than the non-stressed mice. Seven days after the bacteria exposure, about 85% of the wounds in the stressed mice became infected, vs about 27% of the wounds in the non-stressed mice. In this study, stress increased the rate of wound infection by threefold. Stress disrupts the body’s equilibrium, significantly impairing its ability to control and eradicate bacterial infection during wound healing.
Chronic stress, which has been called our number one health problem, is not something to take lightly, it can have profound effects on your immune system and your overall health.
Psycho-neuroimmunology is a whole new field that studies the effects of psychological stress on the immune system. Scientists in this area have showed alterations in the normal function of immune cells in animals during times of stress. For example, excessive physical stress changes your immune cell profile.
Increased upper respiratory tract infections occur in athletes who over-train, and a decreased cell-mediated immunity can occur in such athletes. Without a properly functioning immune system, your body is vulnerable to invasion by opportunistic germs such as fungi, viruses and bacteria.
It is not practical to advise people to avoid stress because we all have stress in our lives from one degree to another. What is practical, however, is to emphasise the importance of dealing with stress before it takes a toll on your health. There now exists ample scientific evidence to suggest that stress impairs the immune system, which allows underlying infections to cause damage.
Relaxation techniques can also be useful when stress becomes overwhelming. Yoga, a psycho-physical discipline, can lead to mental clarity, greater self-understanding, and a feeling of wellbeing, along with improved physical fitness. Many people experience benefits not only because of the physical stretching and muscle strengthening but also because of the meditative state that is encouraged. Have you ever considered Yoga or Tai Chi? They are both wonderful and will add an extra dimension to your life.
Meditation is another technique that will allow you to calm your mind and fight stress. Meditating can help you focus your thoughts on relaxing images or principles. It can also help you examine your daily life and determine what activities are contributing to your stress.
The bottom line is that stress shuts down either the recruitment or the function of those immune cells needed to fight infection. An effective protocol, along with the correct dietary and lifestyle changes, can offer you the greatest chance of overcoming stress before it takes control and ruins your health.
Is it any wonder that most Western countries are now experiencing soaring rates of cancer? It is important for you to recognise that stress can be a good thing. We call this “eu-stress” as opposed to “dis-stress” which leads ultimately to disease and death.. For example, if you are going for a job interview, a driving test, or are going to give a speech at a wedding, such short-term acute stress actually boosts your adrenaline and gives your body a natural push to get things done, your mind has a bit more clarity, you feel more alert. The key is to be aware of your stress level and get things under control if stress takes over. The best awareness you can have is self-awareness.