My immunology course was fascinating both in the knowledge it presented and how hard it made my brain work to understand everything! It wasn’t until I was trying to explain immunity to someone, recently, that I went on a search for a video to simplify things. Check out this video for a 5 minute crash course in how your immune system works.
One some level, every treatment recommendation I give is also designed to support immunity. We all know that it’s important to have a healthy immune system, but what actually is this system doing? How does stress affect it?
Q: Why do I get sick when I go on vacation?
A: This question comes up most often in a complaint. “How was your vacation?” “Oh it was great… until I got sick.”
- Very acute stressors that last only a few minutes actually help boost immunity in the places that we evolutionarily would have needed it. For example, T cells in your immune system head to the skin during this type of stress. T cells help coordinate your immune response to a threat. Since our stressors in the past likely involved physical trauma it makes sense that the immune system is there and ready.
- During a longer stressor of a a few hours to a day or two like writing an exam, different changes occur. Your nonspecific first line of defence called cellular immunity is reduced while the systems responsible for humoral immunity (fighting off things you’ve already encountered) are maintained.
- Chronic stress derails both sides of your immune system. (1)
Okay so why do I get sick when the stress is gone? It’s common to associate feelings of sickness with the bacteria or virus that have invaded us but what actually causes the symptoms we experience in mild illness is our own immune system responding to something. (2) When we’re chronically stressed, our immune system isn’t able to go after the treats because it is suppressed. Once the stress is gone, the immune system resumes it normal activities to find viruses and sometimes bacteria have made themselves a little too comfortable. Suddenly, the immune system retaliates on our behalf. (3) If you’ve been stressed for a very long time and a virus or bacteria takes a strong enough hold your immune system will have no choice but to respond to the infection. This could mean a long drawn out battle for your body to clear the infection.
Q: I know what I need to do to reduce stress but I just can’t seem to prioritize it. What can I do to keep it first in my mind?
A: Stress management is my favourite part of health to help people with. There are many many ways to reduce stress. I like to recommend picking one thing to focus on working into your routine a month. Right now it’s January and I’m really focusing on working more activity into my days. On Tuesday I got out for a walk on my lunch break in the sun and noticed that I felt so much more energized and happy for the rest of the day. Remember that if managing stress well was going to be easy everyone would be doing it. Here are some tips:
- Pick one thing to focus on each month to ensure it gets into your routine.
- Strength in numbers – find a friend or coworker who’s up for making the same change and cheer each other on.
- Put reminders everywhere – in your calendar, post-its on your desk, keep it close in your mind. If you don’t use this step it’s easy to fall off the wagon after a week.
- Connect with why it’s important to you to minimize your stress, be it more joy in your days, more energy, illness prevention or to help reduce symptoms of an already existing illness.
Q: What are some simple ways to reduce stress?
A: What reduces stress is individual for everyone, but these are a great place to start.
- Increase activity in your days by getting up from the couch, desk, out of your car more often than you do now. A step counting app like Moves is really helpful for this. If you’re really keen, check out Fitbit and Jawbone. Aim for a standing/walking break of 5 minutes for every 30 -45 minutes of sitting. Take that stroll to the water cooler, be the one that goes for the coffee run on foot, park your car further away from your ultimate destination. See how many steps you can get in a day.
- Breathing breaks – shut off the lights, go to a quiet place away from work, put up your feet and close your eyes. Listen to some relaxing music if need be, ocean waves are my favourite, and focus on your breathing.
- Time out doors – take advantage of green spaces and parks near your offices. There are way more trails around than you realize. Ask around and you’ll be surprised what you find out.
- Can’t get out of the office? Check out these tips.
- Get a good night’s sleep!
I hope this post has inspired you to reduce stress today and in the future. Struggling to implement changes, fatigue getting in the way or not sure what’s standing in your way? My mindfulness training allows me to dive deeper with you into your patterns to uncover the unique keys to unlocking your health.
(1) Segerstrom SC, Miller GE. Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry. Psychological bulletin. 2004;130(4):601-630. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361287/
(2) Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell. The Immune System Explained I – Bacteria Infection http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQGOcOUBi6s
(3) Lim, A. STRESS, CORTISOL, AND THE IMMUNE SYSTEM: WHAT MAKES US GET SICK? http://www.scq.ubc.ca/stress-cortisol-and-the-immune-system-what-makes-us-get-sick/