Stressful Times and Immune System Health
Stress can have a profound effect on immune system health. As many of us are coping with the global changes that have affected our lives, we can see the results of our increased stress response. This can include cortisol imbalance and adrenal fatigue that leads patients to your practice with complaints of anxiousness, memory fog, sugar cravings, and sleep issues. If the stress continues its chronic course, further symptoms of fatigue, hair loss, and reduced immune function can ensue.
The connection between stress and immune system health
It is no secret that we’ve known stress is connected to suppression of the immune system, as well as infection. 1,2 It has been shown that immunity becomes lowered during stressful times, with reduced production of immune system protective T cells, B cells, NK cells, and monocytes. 1,2 As chronic stress can dysregulate the immune response, so too can it affect cortisol rhythm, throwing off proper sleep cycles and potentially leading to higher blood pressure and heart rate. 1 Fortunately, many of these changes can be quickly reversed with stress reduction techniques. 1 Adding certain ingredients to a patient regimen can also help them derive stress-relief benefits.
Stress reduction techniques
Sleep is necessary to positively affect the resilience of the immune system. It is also associated with reducing the risk of infection, with research revealing that sleep deficiencies can develop as chronic, low-grade inflammation that can exacerbate certain inflammatory diseases. 3 A balanced diet, such as one that promotes anti-inflammatory foods such as fatty fish, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and healthy fats, can help reduce inflammation as well as assist the immune system with proper functioning. 4 Also, the recommendation of gentle exercise can help with the psychological aspects of stress by reducing levels of stress hormones. 5 Such exercise may include yoga, walking, and swimming.
Nutrients for stress
Diving deeper into the utilization of food to address stress response, we can recommend specific ingredients that may help support outcomes. For example, adrenal fatigue may occur as a result of chronic stress, leaving a patient feeling exhausted and burned-out, as well as affect sleep. 6 Supporting adrenal fatigue with bovine adrenal cortex from a USDA-approved source may support a patient’s tired, stressed adrenals and help them feel more alert and rejuvenated.*
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) has been shown to help people obtain more REM sleep (important for managing stress), 7 while the steroid pregnenolone can help fight fatigue that often accompanies stress.* Adding vitamin C to a patient regimen may also help reduce cortisol levels and provide a protective factor in those who are physically and mentally stressed. 8
Stressful times may also necessitate emotional support intervention, such as recommending a patient to cognitive-behavioral therapy or neurolinguistic programming. Combined with interventions that include diet, exercise, and sleep, patients may begin to incorporate stress-relieving practices into their lives and find relief from symptoms of chronic stress.
1. Dhabhar FS. Enhancing versus suppressive effects of stress on immune function: implications for immunoprotection and immunopathology. Neuroimmunomodulation. 2009;16(5):300-17.
2. Stress Weakens the Immune System. The American Psychological Association. Accessed August 2, 2020.
3. Besedovsky L, Lange T, Haack M. The Sleep-Immune Crosstalk in Health and Disease. Physiol Rev. 2019;99(3):1325‐1380.
4. Childs CE, Calder PC, Miles EA. Diet and Immune Function. Nutrients. 2019;11(8):1933. Published 2019 Aug 16.
5. Silverman MN, Deuster PA. Biological mechanisms underlying the role of physical fitness in health and resilience. Interface Focus. 2014;4(5):20140040.
6. Balbo M, Leproult R, Van Cauter E. Impact of sleep and its disturbances on hypothalamo- pituitary-adrenal axis activity. Int J Endocrinol. 2010:759234.
7. Friess E, Trachsel L, Guldner J, Schier T, Steiger A, Holsboer F. DHEA administration increases rapid eye movement sleep and EEG power in the sigma frequency range. Am J Physiol. 1995 Jan;268(1 Pt 1):E107-13.
8. Brody S, Preut R, Schommer K, Schürmeyer TH. A randomized controlled trial of high dose ascorbic acid for reduction of blood pressure, cortisol, and subjective responses to psychological stress. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2002 Jan;159(3):319-24.