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How Does Stress Affect the Immune System?

By Traci Joy ; Updated August 14, 2017

The Connection with Immune System

The immune system is defined by the National Cancer Institute as a complex system of cells, organs and tissues that protect the body from bacteria, viruses and micro-organisms that try to invade it. Scientists and researchers have known for years that there is a connection between stress and the immune system. A report in the November 1990 edition of Psychological Bulletin, states that stress suppresses immune system function and that, over time, the immune system does not adapt but instead continues to wear away. What was intended to protect the body, begins to harm it when unregulated. The effect of stress on the immune system has been linked to cancer, AIDS and other autoimmune disorders.

Too Much Stress

The way stress affects the immune system is complicated but explained well by Harrison Wein, Ph. D, in the National Institutes of Health newsletter, "Word on Health." In the article, "Stress and Disease: New Perspectives," Dr. Wein states that stress produces a hormone in the body called cortisol. The brain recognizes cortisol as the "fight or flight" hormone, and when it is produced, other body functions are halted until the stressful situation has passed. This is the body's way of taking care of an immediate emergency. The immune system also receives signals to slow down while cortisol does its job. But with chronic stress, however, the immune system stays in low gear, leaving the body vulnerable to infection and disease. Common illnesses brought on or worsened by stress are cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, skin conditions and poor memory function.

Too Little Stress

According to Dr. Wein, you can also have too little stress in the body as well. If that happens, there is no system that puts the immune system in check. When left to do what it wants, the immune system often begins attacking healthy invaders, and when that happens, you can develop inflammatory diseases like arthritis or tendinitis. The general population, however, does not have to worry about too little stress.

Controlling Stress for Immune Function

The Mayo Clinic reports that when the levels of stress hormones drop, then other body processes such as heart rate and immune function return to normal. As cortisol levels drop, the immune system cells begin to resume their role of protecting the body.

While you cannot avoid all of the stresses that come your way, you can learn how to control your reaction. Learning to deal with stress in a healthy manner will minimize the negative affects it has on the immune system. The Mayo Clinic recommends meditation, exercise, counseling and good interpersonal relationships as constructive ways to handle life's daily challenges.

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