If you’re like most people, the holiday season can bring on a lot of stress with joy and cheer. When we are stressed, our immunity becomes weaker. Just when we all need a strong immune system to spend time with loved ones safely, chronic stress has the potential to weaken our defenses.
How Stress Affects The Immune System
Why does stress weaken immunity? The process makes perfect sense if you think of how we lived for most of human history.
Not too long ago, if we perceived a threat, such as a predatory animal in the wild, we had to respond – and quickly! In that sense, our body is primed to protect us.
Fight Or Flight
Let’s take a look at the “flight or fight” response and how stress changes us on a physiological level.
- Blood pressure goes up.
- Heart rate goes up.
- Serotonin levels drop, because you need to stay awake.
- Insulin sensitivity is impaired.
- Digestion slows down to preserve energy.
- Cholesterol goes up.
- The body pumps stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream.
All of these changes are designed to make sure that you have enough energy in the right places – ie the arms and legs – to respond to stress appropriately – ie fight or run.
That’s because your body wants to put all of its resources into dealing with the immediate threat. This response is actually very helpful – if you need to escape a predator. However, in today’s world, stress is typically more chronic and, let’s face it, unrelenting.
And that’s where the problems start.
Our body’s ability to respond to stress is called “adaptive physiology.” To understand this, it might help to think of your nervous system as actually two systems:
- Your sympathetic nervous system powers the Fight or Flight response that you need in the face of danger.
- Your parasympathetic nervous system is behind the “Relax and Recharge”, aka “Rest and Digest” response you need in between periods of stress. Without this response, your body’s systems would stay in overdrive.
Essentially, the way in which these two systems work together is not unlike the brakes and gas pedals in your car. One speeds you up, and the other slows you down.
Ideally, your body adapts depending on the situation. The Relax and Recharge period is essential to restoring balance in mind and body.
Putting The Breaks On Stress
Right now, many of us feel like the “gas” is always on, which is a perfectly understandable response when faced with a global crisis.
However, that kind of constant stress can lead to a long list of health problems if the sympathetic nervous system never turns off.
What happens to a car if you only touch the gas and never use the brakes? There’s a high likelihood of a crash.
Don’t Crash Your Immune System
Not surprisingly, your immune system suffers when you’re heading for a crash. All the things that happen during your flight or fight response can lower your immunity. And that’s exactly what you don’t want to happen right now.
6 Ways To Switch Your Body To A Parasympathetic State
So, what can you do? Isn’t stress inevitable at this moment in history? A good starting point is thinking of the two states of your immune system and doing what you can to reach a state of rest and restoration.
- Look at your mindset.
How you perceive a stressful situation will affect your body’s response to it. Perhaps you’re feeling over-extended at work and home or that your social calendar is too full. That’s stressful. However, consider the opportunities you have in daily life to be kind to others in your path. That simple mental shift can help your nervous system remain in a restorative mode.
Don’t forget: You always have the opportunity to change your attitude.
- Seek connection.
In times of stress, you should be close to people who restore your sense of wellbeing. It’s important to feel connected and accepted, because a feeling of connection can boost your immunity.
- Honor your body’s natural rhythms.
Many people are having trouble sleeping right now with extra “to-do lists” on their minds. However, it’s more important than ever to try to get between seven and eight hours a night. Even if your normal routine is disrupted, try to stick to a regular sleep schedule. That means going to bed at the same time every night (yes, even on weekends). As well, don’t dismiss the restorative powers of a good nap.
- Don’t overcommit.
We’re all under a lot of pressure right now. Take a close look at your commitments and think of how you can eliminate any unnecessary stress. Remember that the goal is to rest your nervous system.
What makes you feel refreshed and restored? Those are the activities to focus on.
- Eat to optimize your immune system.
Many studies backup the importance of essential nutrients in protecting your immunity. The ideal diet and supplements for you will depend on your unique health profile, but important nutrients include selenium, zinc, and vitamins A, C, and D. In addition, don’t overlook the importance of maintaining a balance of “good bacteria” in your gut. More and more research points to the connection between a healthy gut and a healthy immune system.
In fact, up to 80 percent of your immune cells are found in your gut. The interaction between your gut microbiota and your immune system helps protect you against foreign pathogens.
- Move your body.
Exercise can help your body’s nervous system maintain equilibrium. It can slow down the release of stress hormones and increase the number of disease-fighting white blood cells. As well, movement helps to regulate the communication between your brain and your body.
However, it’s important to move in a safe way – any irregularities in your body’s alignment can affect this process. Focus on doing something you love and making exercise a part of your daily routine. Consistency is the key! If you’re not sure exactly how to work out with gym closures, check out the multitude of workouts you can find online.
Even in stressful times, it’s possible to optimize your immune system. Focus on your body’s need to restore and repair itself and prioritize your self-care. Taking steps towards staying healthy can help you gain a sense of control in an uncertain world. And that will ultimately strengthen your response to stress.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, please reach out. We can work together to create a plan that fits your unique needs!