November 30, 2023/Rheumatology & Immunology

Yes, There Is Such a Thing as Stress Sickness

From nausea, weight gain and eczema, stress can affect your immune system in many ways

person holding a thermometer with stress thought bubbles above head

For most of us, stress is just a part of life. It can last for a few hours, like the time leading up to a final exam. Or it can be more long-term, like when taking care of an ailing loved one.

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Whatever the cause, no one enjoys the feeling of stress. But can stress actually make you sick?

In short: Yes. In fact, along with causing eczema, unwanted weight gain and nausea, stress can even weaken your immune system. “Eliminating or modifying different stress factors in your life is vital to protect and increase your immune response,” says clinical immunologist Leonard Calabrese, DO.

Dr. Calabrese offers insight on how stress impacts your immunity and what you can do to minimize the effect.

The link between stress and your immune system

Believe it or not, stress isn’t all bad. In fact, acute stress is the part of us that helps protect us and make us more alert.

When you start feeling stressed, it causes your body to produce greater levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In short spurts, cortisol can boost your immunity by limiting inflammation. “But over time, when your body reaches chronic stress, your body can get used to having too much cortisol in your blood. And this opens the door for more inflammation,” Dr. Calabrese explains.

In addition, chronic stress decreases your body’s lymphocytes — the white blood cells that help fight off infection. The lower your lymphocyte level, the more at risk you are for viruses, including the common cold and cold sores. This is when you can start experiencing a “stress-induced sickness.” Your immune system starts to feel weaker, so it can’t fight against infections or diseases as well.

High stress levels also can cause depression and anxiety, which also can lead to higher levels of inflammation. In the long-term, sustained, high levels of inflammation point to an overworked, over-tired immune system that can’t properly protect you.

Other conditions that are strongly linked to stress

Chronic inflammation can accompany unmanaged high stress levels, which can contribute to the development and progression of many diseases of the immune system like:

Under sustained, long-term stress, you also can develop cardiovascular problems, including a fast heart rate and heart disease, as well as gastric ulcers. You’ll also be at greater risk for Type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and mental decline.

At this point, you might be thinking, “That’s quite the list of associated conditions!” Certainly, stress can be stressful enough on its own. But this information isn’t meant to cause you more stress. Instead, try to see it as a reason to prioritize your own health and give yourself time and space to focus on honing your stress management techniques.

How to manage your stress and prevent sickness

Stress reduction strategies not only give your mind a break, but they can also relieve the pressure stress creates on your immune system.

“You can take steps to reduce short-term and long-term stress,” Dr. Calabrese reassures.

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Here are just a few helpful tactics for reducing stress and boosting your immune system:

Meditation and mindfulness

Meditating three to four times weekly can do wonders for reducing your stress levels. It doesn’t have to be long — just 10 to 15 minutes to find a calm moment with yourself. Meditation reduces your cortisol levels and reduces inflammation. You can also practice mindfulness during your everyday life.

Adjust your diet

Another big part of our overall health is the food we eat. Be sure to eat a balanced diet of fruit, protein, grains and vitamins to help keep your immune system running smoothly. In the same vein, you can also try incorporating foods like fish, berries and whole grains that have been shown to help with brain health. And sleep affects a big part of stress levels as well, so make sure what you’re eating is helping you wind down before bed, too.

Practice yoga

Practicing yoga lowers stress hormone levels and calms your nervous system to reduce inflammation. Deep breathing helps boost your resistance to infection. Inverted poses in yoga help circulate fluid through your lymphatic system, filtering out toxins.

Plus, there are so many types of yoga classes and routines out there, there’s something for everyone. Depending on your level and what kind of stress you’re experiencing, here are some yoga types to consider:

Get enough sleep

Lack of sleep can put you at risk of higher stress and weakening your immune system. So, it’s important to make sure you’re getting the recommended amount each night — around seven to nine hours if you’re an adult. Also, having a calming morning and bedtime routine helps you have a balanced rhythm during the day, which can help reduce any stressors that may come your way.

Learn your stressors and how to tackle them

While we all experience stress, each person’s relationship to it is different. You know what is most likely to stress you out, so it can be helpful to identify these triggers, journal about them and be prepared with a plan of relaxation to calm yourself the next time they pop up.

The bottom line on stress and your immunity

Remember, stress in acute situations can be healthful and protective, so it’s not all bad for us. It’s chronic stress that we seek to manage. Listen to your body and take note if the stress you’re feeling is constant or situational. Either way, there are tactics for coping.

If you feel like your stress levels aren’t improving even after lifestyle changes, be sure to talk to a healthcare provider about how they can help.

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