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  • Writer's pictureSimone Grove

How does stress impact the immune system

We know that prolonged stress isn’t good for our health – and recent research is revealing just how extensive the damage can be. Often, our bodies give us subtle hints before full blown dis-ease develops – so much of the harmful activity that eventually triggers tangible symptoms happens silently.


One aspect of our health which is significantly impacted by stress is our immune system – and often, that’s the last thing we want to hear when we’re already sick and experiencing stress related to our illness or condition. Here I’ve shared a simple explanation of the link between stress and inflammation in the body - and the affect this has on the immune system, as well as some tips to help you heal and support enhanced immunity from the inside out.


What’s the link between inflammation and stress?


When we are stressed, our body responds to meet the perceived ‘threat’ in a number of ways, collectively known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. It is an activation of our sympathetic nervous system, which helps keeps us safe in times of danger. Occasionally or in the short-term, this response can actually be helpful. It readies us to deal with difficult situations and can actually help to boost immunity by temporarily suppressing inflammation.


But over time, this stress response begins to have a negative effect on our health, with the extended fight-or-flight response slowly slipping into a state of burnout. Intense, prolonged stress causes inflammation everywhere, which in turn disturbs the delicate balance of our immune system and over-activates or sensitises the immune response (this is what happens in the extreme in autoimmune conditions, where the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissues and systems mistakenly). Our bodies are simply not designed to stay stuck in fight or flight for long periods of time, so long-term chronic stress can impact negatively on our health in many different ways, including having a detrimental effect on our immune system.


How does stress affect the immune system?


Stress affects our immune system because it causes a significant imbalance in our hormones and brain chemistry which then starts to affect many other areas of the body. Cortisol is a hormone which is released during the fight or flight response – but when we are chronically stressed it becomes persistently high and eventually dominant. This increases inflammation in itself and can also cause other issues such as hormone imbalance and depression or anxiety, all of which add to the stress and strain on the body and the immune system, which becomes too overworked to protect us properly. 


Although it may take a while to actually be able to feel the effects of an impaired immune system, you may start with just one or two symptoms. Over time as chronic stress goes untreated and remains the same or gets worse, people typically find that they experience more symptoms with greater intensity.


Symptoms of an over-active immune system include:


  • Increased sensitivities, allergies and allergy-type symptoms such as hayfever and reactions to dust, pets and even food

  • Eczema and unexplained skin rashes or redness 

  • Unexplained weight loss/weight gain

  • Sore, aching muscles

  • Difficulty concentrating or easily losing focus

  • Hair loss


If you’re dealing with other illnesses, some of these symptoms may overlap, so it’s best to discuss your concerns with your doctor to make sure there are no underlying conditions or complications with your existing diagnosis.


Treating chronic stress


Tackling chronic stress can be a real challenge, especially if you’ve been dealing with it for an extended period of time. For a lot of my patients, chronic stress (and the mental and physical symptoms and sensations of stress) is so prolonged and deep-seated that it actually feels normal – and it can be difficult to visualise not living this way. This can feel even more overwhelming if you are dealing with other health issues on top of your stress such as autoimmune disease, chronic illness or cancer.


The way we approach chronic stress is very similar to the way we treat chronic pain – like fishing with a net rather than a rod. That’s because there’s usually no singular ‘cure’ for chronic stress – instead, a variety of treatments, tools and techniques can be used holistically to help slowly and surely re-establish a more balanced, heathy emotional state. These can include therapies such as counselling and CBT, neuro-linguistic programming, trauma processing, physical activities and movement like yoga and dance and stress-reducing treatments like massage and float therapy. Sometimes medications can help you to feel better and feel more able to put healthy new habits in place, but lasting relief usually requires a root-cause focus.


As part of my integrative practice, I incorporate a variety of holistic treatments and therapies which are designed to reduce chronic stress, including reflexology, aromatherapy, crystal healing and mindset coaching.  


Get in touch to learn more about what I do or to book a free consultation to see how I can help you:

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