Published on Thu Apr 9, 2020 - 3 min read
Stress & the Immune System
Stress reduction is a powerful immune booster.
“Mind over matter” is not just some motivational catchphrase – it is a fundamental biological truth. We know that the brain has great power to heal, and depending on our response to stress, great power to destroy our health. This mind-body connection is never more apparent than in our immune response1. As the world grinds to a halt during the global coronavirus pandemic stress is at an all-time high. To maintain our health and resiliency, we need to be mindful of what influences our stress levels and take action when we feel control slipping away.
A great example of the power of the mind-body connection is the Placebo and Nocebo effect. The placebo effect is said to occur when a person’s positive expectations influence the outcome of an experiment2. In some cases, the placebo effect can outperform the actual drug being tested! On the flip-side, the nocebo effect occurs when a person’s negative expectations create negative side-effects3. Nocebo effects include nausea, sleep disruption, stomach pain, depression, sexual dysfunction, and inflammation4. Curiously, most of the nocebo effects are known to be directly caused by cortisol5, the body’s primary stress hormone.
When the mind perceives a threat, our stress response is activated, releasing hormones that divert our energy to prepare us for “flight or fight.” Our heart rate increases, nerves fill with electricity, and adrenaline increases6. Meanwhile, non-essential brain functions are tuned out, the digestive system turns off, and the immune system is suppressed6. In the short-term, it is more important to be able to outrun a tiger or swerve to avoid an accident than fight a cold. The body responds to emotional stress the same way it responds to physical stress6. Problems arise when stress is chronic, and the immune system is perpetually suppressed, which dramatically increases inflammation and makes us much more susceptible to viral infections like coronavirus7 as well as autoimmune disorders8, depression9, heart disease10, and even cancer11.
Even though chronic stress can harm, we should not fear everything that activates our stress response as there are also positive stressors like diet, exercise, or learning new skills12 – perfect quarantine hobbies. Here are our top all-natural techniques, lifestyle tweaks, and supplements to help strengthen our resolve against stress and boost immunity:
Take a break! Removing yourself from a stressful situation for 10 minutes is enough to trigger the body’s natural relaxation response13. Continuously watching pandemic updates and doom predictions on television and social media raise our stress levels and make us more susceptible to infection14. Prayer, meditation, cooking, reading, all help lower stress15.
The benefits of getting out in nature cannot be overstated. During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, open-air–treated patients fared much better than those quarantined inside16. Sunshine plays an important role, not only producing immune–enhancing vitamin D but also “feel good” neurotransmitters dopamine17 and serotonin18.
Reconnect. Social distancing and Isolation are two major risk factors that increase our stress response and lower immunity19. Studies have shown that stress lowers immunity, but those who were stressed and lonely had a much more dramatic decline20. Beat the quarantine blues and use technology to your advantage by reconnecting to family, friends, and your community.
Targeted Stress Reduction supplements:
Adaptogens are a special class of herbs that, by definition, help us adapt to stress21. These include ashwagandha, rhodiola, reishi mushroom, ginseng, and gotu kola. Ashwagandha is one of the universal adaptogens and is used to prevent burnout and to help with chronic fatigue, depression, inflammation, physical endurance, memory, and lowering cortisol22.
Kanna has been used for thousands of years by South African tribes for its mind-body enhancing and stress lowering effects23. Kanna is said to reduce anxiety, depression, hunger, and pain, while improving mood, mental focus, and visual acuity24! Many Kanna users report having feelings of “alert serenity.” Kanna is associated with feelings of confidence and safety25.
B-Complex supplements have long been used to combat the effects of stress. B vitamins are essential for energy production, as well as the synthesis of many neurotransmitters involved with cognition and mood. Several studies have shown that B vitamins reduce stress, anxiety, fatigue, and depression while improving concentration and mood26,27,28.
Essential oils are a powerful tool in our quest for stress reduction, and as a bonus, they are powerful immune boosters. Lavender is the most well studied and works to calm the nervous system, slow heart rate, decrease skin temperature, and reduce anxiety29. Bergamot oil relieves tension, anxiety, stress, actively reduces chronic pain, and even changes brain wave patterns for a more relaxed meditative state30. Other helpful oils include clary sage31 and ylang-ylang32.
Magnesium is the anti-stress mineral, and no discussion about stress is complete without mentioning it. Magnesium is a great muscle relaxer and has been shown to significantly lower cortisol production, helping to combat depression, anxiety, and stress33,34,35. Magnesium also increases cellular communication, which lowers oxidative stress and inflammation36.
In these times of pandemic and quarantine induced high stress, we should double our self-care efforts. A personalized supplement program is an integral part of any action plan to reduce stress and boost immunity.