How Stress Affects the Immune System and Effective Coping Strategies

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What is the Immune System?

A big part of having a healthy body and maintaining homeostasis is having an effective immune system. When the immune system is weak, we are far more receptive to infection and diseases than when it is operating at a healthy level.

The immune system produces specific types of cells or antibodies to destroy a particular antigen. Antigens are substances which the immune system recognizes as foreign to itself i.e. microbes, fungi, viruses etc… (Carlson, 2001; Tortora & Grabowski, 2004).

The immune system is derived from white blood cells which are developed in the thymus gland and bone marrow (Carlson, 2001). The stem cells of red bone marrow develop lymphocytes which carry out the immune system responses. These lymphocytes are known as B-cells and T-cells (Tortora & Grabowski, 2004).

B-cells turn into plasma cells which are generally responsible for the production and secretion of antibodies. T-cells, in general, are responsible for the direct attack of an invading antigen and regulating the immune system (Beaton, 2003; Tortora & Grabowski, 2004).

Both B-cells and T-cells protect the body from foreign cells, pathogens and cancer cells (Tortora & Grabowski, 2004).

Effects of Stress on the Immune System

Effects of Stress on Immune Systems and BodySince the immune system is so important to our overall well-being, it is of great importance that we understand the leading cause of immune deficiency which is stress and how it weakens our immune system.

Stress can cause the immune system to have a poor antibody response and virus-specific T-cell response and it can increase the secretion of glucocorticoids which directly suppresses the activity of the immune system, makes one more vulnerable to infections and perhaps even cancer (Glaser, 1996; Carlson, 2001).

According to several different laboratory tests by Kiecolt-Glaser (1987), caregivers of family members with Alzheimer’s disease showed weaker immune systems than caregivers who did not have to undergo the stress of taking care of a family member with Alzheimer’s disease.

In fact, caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients are less likely to develop antibodies against the flu virus after receiving immunization shots (Vedhara, 1999).

It has even been shown that when normal, healthy adults imagine themselves reliving unpleasant emotional experiences, the immune response is decreased (Knapp, 1992).

In 1994 a control group of medical students under exam stress were compared with medical students who were not under exam stress. Those students who were under the additional stress of the exams had a lower level of T-cells, and there was a higher self-reported occurrence of health problems than the students who were not under exam stress (O’Leary, 1990).

Stress also has extremely negative effects on testosterone.

Coping Strategies

Coping Skills for StressStress can come from any number of places, such as poor sleeping habits, time management, eating habits, relationships, finances, any kind of change; the list goes on and on.

With so many occurrences of stress related issues in everyday life it is no wonder that we have so many health problems. There are, however, strategies an individual can implement to help control stress levels and keep the immune system running in a smooth and efficient manner.

Cognitive-behavioral

Cognitive-behavioral stress management therapies has been shown to be quite effective at helping individuals cope with stress.

Using techniques such as, progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, rational thinking, exposure therapy, and desensitization, helps alleviate the constant activation of the endocrine system, which in turn increases the effectiveness of the immune system (Jones, 2003).

Meditation

Meditation is another great way to get in some quality relaxation time to reduce stress. By simply setting in a quiet room for 20 minutes or so and clearing your mind of all the worries and concerns, it can do wonders for your stress and overall wellbeing.

According to C. Noel Baireymerz, the medical director and chair of the Women’s Health Program at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, “Studies consistently demonstrate that meditation lowers blood pressure to the same magnitude as starting on a first-line drug”.

Prayer

Similar to meditation, one can also pray to help aliviate the symptoms of stress. Studies suggest that people who attend church regularly have stronger immune systems, which may explain why researchers have found that regular churchgoers also enjoy better physical health overall (Koenig, Cohen & George, 1997).

Laughter

Laughing has been shown to reduce stress levels and increase the immune system as well.

Researchers divided 33 healthy adult women into two groups and had one watch a humorous video while the other viewed a tourism video, those laughing not only saw their stress levels drop, but their immune function increase when compared to the women watching the tourism video (Bennett, Zeller, Rosenberg & McCann, 2003).

Take a Vacation

Getting away from it all for a week or even a weekend has also been shown to decrease stress levels. This does not mean that one can stress there brains out all month and then take a 2 day vacation to fix everything.

Taking some occasional time off will help support your overall sense of wellbeing, however, and help you maintain homeostasis. In one study that did a 20 year follow up of 749 women, researchers found a connection between a lack of vacations, heart attacks and early death, regardless of whether they worked outside or inside the home (Eaker, Pinski & Castelli, 1992).

Take Care of a Pet

In a recent study, researchers evaluated the cardiovascular health of 120 couples which owned a pet and 120 which did not. The study showed that couples with pets had significantly lower heart rates and blood pressure levels when exposed to stressors than those who were petless (Allen, Blascovich & Mendes, 2002).

So you don’t have time to meditate, take a vacation or own a pet and you don’t like to laugh? You probably need to work on that!

Just Take a Break

But there is still good news, research has shown that taking a break as short as 10 minutes and getting a head and neck massage, progressive muscle relaxation, listening to soothing music or talking to a friend can lower anxiety, depression, confusion and fatigue while boosting energy levels.

At least it did for the 64 women who were studied by Field, Quintino & Henteleff (1997) for job stress reduction therapies.

Resources

  1. Allen, K., Blascovich, J., Mendes, W.B. (2003). Cardiovascular Reactivity and the Presence of Pets, Friends, and Spouses: The Truth About Cats and Dogs. – Link
  2. Beaton, D.B. (2003). Effects of Stress and Psychological Disorders on the Immune System – Link
  3. Bennett, M., Zeller, J. Rosenberg, L., McCann, J. (2003) The effect of mirthful laughter on stress and natural killer cell activity. – Link
  4. Carlson, N. R. (2001). Physiology of Behavior. – Link
  5. Eaker, E. D., Pinsky, J., Castelli, WP Myocardial infarction and coronary death among women: psychosocial predictors from a 20-year follow-up of women in the Framingham Study. – Link
  6. Field, C, Quintino, O., Henteleff, C. (1997) Job stress reduction therapies. – Link
  7. Glaser, R. (1996) The Effects of Stress on the Immune System: Implications for Health – Link
  8. Jones, J. (2003). Stress responses, pressure ulcer development and adaptation. – Link
  9. Knapp, P.H., Levy, E.M., Giorgi, R.G., Black, P.H., Fox, B.H., and Heeren, T.C. (1992). Short-Term Immunological Effects of Induced Emotion. – Link
  10. Koenig, H., Cohen, H., George, L., (1997). Attendance at religious services, interleukin-6, and other biological parameters of immune function in elder adults. – Link
  11. O’Leary, A. (1990). Stress, emotion, and human immune function. – Link
  12. Tortora, J.G., & Grabowski, S.R.(2004). Introduction to Human Body. – Link
  13. Vedhara, K., Cox, N.k., Wilcock, G.K., Perks, P., Hunt, M. Anderson, S., Lightman, S.L., and Shanks, N.M. (1999) Chronic Stress in Elderly Carers of Dementia Patients and Antibody Response to Influenza Vaccination. – Link