10 Ways to boost immunity by decreasing stress


You go to the doctor with complaints of anxiety, depression, muscle aches, and digestive issues. Your doctor runs a few tests and tells you, “You are fine, it’s just stress.” Although this is a correct diagnosis, it is not to be taken lightly or ignored.
 

Emotional or psychological stress is a very real diagnosis and can explain many of the physical symptoms that people complain of. Our emotional state is connected to our physical one. To give an example, when you get nervous or angry or happy, what changes in your body do you immediately observe? Most people will answer that they feel nauseous, or they need to run to the toilet, or they get butterflies in their stomach. As soon as many feel an emotion, their gut tunes in to confirm it.

 

This is not by chance. Our body has a system in place to deal with stress. This “fight or flight” mechanism tells the body that there is a physical danger even if it is our emotional response to something. When this happens, the body turns off unessential things in a time of detected danger, like proper digestion, so that more attention is given to processes our body needs to survive like increased attention or an increased heart rate. Our bodies do not discern between emotional or physical danger so it will increase the heart rate, for example, so more blood is pumped to our muscles to run away from a threat.

 

The immune system is no exception to this mechanism. When the body is under chronic stress, the immune system is suppressed as it tries to deal with the chronic inflammation that is associated with the stress. An example of how stress can materialize in the body is asthma. Under circumstances of chronic stress, the immune system over-reacts to an allergen and this causes asthma which many people do experience. It is also documented that when the immune system is suppressed, it can exacerbate pathological immune responses like the ones seen when the body is infected with a virus or bacteria.

 

If the immune system is not functioning at an optimal level, it will overcompensate by creating a storm of sorts. A good analogy would be someone who has been sleep-deprived for a week and they have an important meeting to attend. They are tired, they cannot focus, they are clumsy, and since they know they really need to concentrate on the meeting, they drink 10 cups of coffee to overcompensate. At the meeting, they are jittery, they feel nervous, possibly over-emotional, and they make major mistakes in front of their boss because of the effects of the coffee. This is exactly what happens with the immune system. If you are stressed out over a long period of time, the immune system gets exhausted and when it is time for it to work, it gets confused and starts attacking the body itself.

 

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So, what can you do to decrease stress and create a more robust immune system?

  1. Eat a nutrient-dense diet. I feel like a broken record in saying this, but good nutrition is critical in any aspect of our health. In times of stress, our body needs many more nutrients to function optimally. Avoid sugar, refined white flour, and processed foods. Instead, eat the colours of the rainbow daily from fruits and vegetables, eat organically raised meat, chicken, and fish, and add good fats from foods like avocados, nuts, and seeds.

  2. Try some supplements. Work with a functional medicine practitioner to understand which supplements can help to regulate cortisol levels. These can include magnesium, vitamin c, phosphatidylserine, and adaptogenic herbs like Rhodiola or ashwagandha.

  3. Get a good night’s rest. Adequate and quality sleep is necessary to decrease stress and to boost immunity. Make sure to get 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Interestingly enough, this does not mean sleeping at 2 in the morning and waking up at 10 am. To properly support the immune system, it is recommended to sleep by 11 pm and wake up at 7 am. This way, you keep your body in tune with the natural circadian rhythms created by the sun’s rising and falling. All humans create hormones for sleeping and waking based on this response to light and nature.

  4. Build community. Reaching out to people you love and care about does wonder for decreasing stress and boosting your resilience. Being surrounded by people you feel safe around as well as cherished and appreciated boosts your immune system and reassures you (decreasing your stress levels). Try to make these connections daily to boost your mood and to stay relaxed.

  5. Ask for help. If you feel your anxiety and/or depression are out of hand, ask for help. Talk to your friends, get the consultation of a psychologist or any professional help that you think you would benefit from. Understanding why you feel a certain way will eventually lead to a resolution of your anxiety or stress.

  6. Live in the moment. This one is a bit tricky for many people to do, however, taking solace in the fact that we only have today, decreases anxiety people may undergo from thinking about the unknown or the future. If we learn to focus on today and only today, stress seems to take a back seat and we begin to enjoy the day rather than worry about what is to come.

  7. Use meditation or prayer. A lot of research shows that people who meditate or pray are, in general, happier and less stressed people. They succumb to the fact that they are part of something bigger than themselves and relinquish control. This decreases stress and definitely increases the functioning of the immune system.

  8. Exercise. The right amount of exercise can definitely help to decrease stress and boost immunity. What is the right amount? If you exercise and you feel energized, you are on the right track. If you exercise and you feel exhausted and cannot move for days ahead, then you probably went too far. Over-exercising actually increases the stress on the body and ultimately suppresses immunity. However, finding the right balance of physical activity is definitely beneficial. Research shows that consistent exercise habits are the best for boosting immunity. In other words, if you start and stop, you increase inflammation. To see the benefits of exercise, you need to do it consistently.

  9. Practice gratefulness. Showing gratitude, even for small things, helps relieve anxiety and decrease stress. Appreciating what we have, instead of complaining about what we do not have, greatly affects our immune system in a positive way. You can practice gratitude by writing affirmations or just get into the habit of saying what you are grateful for every day. You will see a massive difference in how you feel and act.

  10. Stay positive. Did you know that one negative thought can increase the inflammatory response in your body? That’s right. ONE negative thought. Therefore, try to stay positive in the light of any issues you may face. It will help your immune system to operate better and you will ward off stress.

 

In the face of adversity, it is important to understand that each one of us has the ability to contribute to better health. It is in our hands to decrease stress, improve our diet and exercise habits, and ultimately build an optimally functioning immune system.

 

Article Author: Tina Christoudias Spyrou, Dietician and Functional Medicine Practitioner

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