Stress & Health Part 3: Immunity

Why is it that the moment you take your foot off the gas you become ill?  Or perhaps infections – of one kind or another – keep returning with frustrating frequency?  Perhaps you just can’t shake that feeling of malaise?

Your immune system is a marvellous thing. In fact, it’s stunning. The number of immune related messages being passed around your body every minute of every day is mind-boggling. Your immune system – in its beautiful entirety – is immense. It’s a huge ‘firm’; a colossal international corporate beast! Just for starters, the trillions of bacteria in your gut are signed-up as workers. Also your white blood cells, which are like department managers, producing teams that travel about testing, then accepting (or flagging-up and removing) suspicious looking packages. Your blood and lymph vessels offer infrastructure to the organisation, providing superhighways that ship immune system workers from A to B. And organs including your liver, thymus and spleen are like national branches of the company.  The intricate working of your immune system is complex, but there is one key concept that’s easy enough to grasp.  It’s this: For your immune system to be well run and have happy workers, it needs to be able to switch on and switch off inflammation.

What you might not know is that some hormones moonlight as immune system workers too. A notable and influential hormone here is cortisol – your stress management hormone!  Could this hold the key to illness striking the moment you start to relax and unwind?

The problem with chronic, long-term stress is it demands that your body produce large amounts the hormone cortisol.

A reminder of what we might consider chronic stressors to be:

  • A busy lifestyle, job or relationship that makes you feel overwhelmed or anxious
  • Poor nutrition
  • Lack of sleep
  • Pain, illness or infection
  • Toxic exposure
  • Overtraining

Cortisol has responsibilities within the immune system corporation. It plays an anti-inflammatory role. It’s very closely related to cortisone, the steroid that’s prescribed by the doctor to help manage inflammatory conditions.

If too much cortisol is churned out in response to unrelenting daily stressors – or insufficient stress management techniques – its overproduction can undermine the immune system, making illness and infection far more likely. This is because some inflammation is needed to fight infection. It is at this point you should listen to the wake-up call and make some focussed lifestyle changes, because otherwise you run the risk of problems escalating.

Over time the impact of chronic stress shifts. Your body tends to change tack because it’s careful not to over-egg things for too long. Surely it shouldn’t keep listening to cortisol’s anti-inflammatory message?  Maybe the fact that nothing is changing means it should ‘move with the times’?  So, it adapts to the new situation if finds itself in. Cortisol’s call to reduce inflammation becomes less effective, and with that inflammation starts to rise. Too much unmanaged inflammation is not a good thing. Inflammatory markers – when left unchecked – may become problematic and can be linked back to fatigue, depression, digestive disorders, food sensitivity, autoimmune conditions, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and much more. If you haven’t taken notice of your body’s cry for help before this time, now really is the time to act.

Managing stress to support your immune system:

  1. Listen to your body and be honest with yourself. If you recognize that one or more of the stressors listed above relate to you, and you’re suffering from ill health (or simply feel below par), acknowledge that action needs to be taken.
  2. Get enough sleep. Making 8 hours of sleep a priority every night is one of the simplest (and cheapest!) ways to start managing the production of stress hormones.
  3. Work hard on your nutrition. Educate yourself on how to eat nourishing, well-balanced meals.
  4. Stop pushing yourself so hard at the gym. If too much cortisol is an issue for you you’re likely to notice improved strength and fitness by factoring in more rest days.
  5. Don’t overcommit to things, especially if they don’t make you happy or they’re unrewarding. It’s time to put your wellbeing first.
  6. Consider guided meditation to support your emotional health. Meditation is well documented for its ability to reduce cortisol levels.

And remember, you don’t have to do this alone. I get that life is busy and that it’s often hard to know where to start (and that sometimes, the energy just isn’t there to figure it all out by yourself). If you’d like support in getting energised, fit and well I can guide, encourage and support you towards optimal happiness, health and wellbeing.

Also in this series: Stress & Health Part 1: Anxiety and Stress & Health Part 2: Digestion

You can find out more about cortisol here.

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