Have you heard of the word stress? I am going to go ahead and say you know that word very well. Perhaps today has been very stressful for you? Or you frequently feel stressed out? Maybe what you aren’t aware of is the impact stress has on your body and health – particularly your immune system. Stress actually affects an abundance of physiological pathways in our body but I want to highlight what it does to your immune system and why it seems you fall sick on your holidays after weeks of working or after long stretches of stressful events.
Adrenaline and cortisol are released from the adrenal glands (which sits on top of the kidney’s) during times of stress. Our body responds to every stressful situation essentially the same way – with a few additional responses if it is mental verses physical stress. Your body simply doesn’t know why you are stressed; it just releases the necessary agents so you can respond appropriately. The purposes of these hormones are to protect us during times of danger – so we can flee quickly. Today, we become stressed when we are late for a meeting or waiting in line. We don’t utilize these hormones for what they were intended for. If we did, they wouldn’t linger in our blood stream for hours. So what are the repercussions?
The action of adrenaline is to increase the heart rate, blood pressure, glucose (smallest molecule of sugar) and decrease digestion. All the actions you need in order to act quickly to a stressful event. Cortisol triggers protein breakdown and utilization of fatty acids to provide glucose – which causes high amounts of glucose in the liver and a sudden drop in your blood, temporarily leading to moderate insulin resistance. In terms of your immune system, cortisol decreases your white blood cells and eosinophil count (these guys kill parasites), effectively dampening any inflammation or immune response. So, what does this means is if you are continuously stressed for long periods of time? Well, you are virtually suppressing your immune system and not allowing it to kill new microbes that you come in contact with each and every day. Then, you go on a long needed holiday, only to end up sick because cortisol is no longer being released, which means your immune system finally has a chance to do its job. Not something you were looking forward to on your two week holiday.
So what can you do to support your body during times of prolonged stress? Here is a little list of a few things you can do:
- Breath. Take 3 deep breaths when your first wake up. Do this again before you enjoy your lunch and before dinner. Lastly, right as you go to bed. Breathing is an easy way to help our body relax. When you are relaxed, your adrenal glands relax. A perfect situation.
- Stay away from the sweet stuff. Stress is often accompanied by carbohydrate cravings, which leads to blood sugar imbalances. I like to characterize sugar as making the immune system sticky; therefore, dampens the powerful players of your immune system. Eating or drinking 100grams (8tsp) of sugar, the equivalent of about two cans of soda, can greatly reduce your white blood cells from killing germs by about 40%. The immune-suppressing effect of sugar starts less than 40 minutes after consumption and can last for about 5 hours. There are also ways to help with these cravings so you eat less sugar.
- Slow down on the stimulants. Instead, use herbal teas or decaffeinated coffee. Stimulants not only further drain your adrenals but the sugar content can be very high, especially in energy drinks.
- Vitamin C. Along with being an important antioxidant it also helps to enhance white blood cell function and activating and increasing interferon levels, antibody responses and antibody levels.
- Vitamin D. Although we live in a sunny environment we can still be deficient in this important vitamin because we cover up so much. It not only helps maintain bone health but also stimulates important immune factors such macrophages. What this means is your body will be stronger to fight viruses.
- Garlic: it not only keeps the vampires away, it can fight microbes as well! The active ingredient of garlic is called alicin. Alicin is a strong antimicrobial, which means it can fight bacteria, viruses and parasites.
- Probiotics: an excellent way to help support the immune system. A large portion of our immune system is created in our digestive tract; therefore, we need to add good bacteria such as Lactobaccillus and Bifidobacterium families. Without good bacteria, things can get out of control and weaken production of immune cells. A good probiotic source is vital if you are on antibiotics.
- Quality sleep. If you are not sleeping well, your body isn’t given the time to repair and fight off infections while you are relaxed. Again, reducing excess cortisol is a key component to achieve a well-rested night sleep, which particular herbs and vitamins can help you with.
- Supporting the adrenal glands with herbal medicine. There are some powerful herbs that can be used when you feel exhausted, run down or even can’t seem to get to sleep due to too much cortisol. Specific herbs are chosen for your particular situation.
Beyond supporting your immune system and adrenal glands, you can test to see if your cortisol levels are normal or are out of balance. I can provide functional testing to see how your body is reacting to stress or if your body is running low.
Dr. Bean is a Canadian Naturopathic Doctor and she provides complete health care by using alternative medicine for both you and your entire family. She recently became a new mother so is passionate about helping women with common pregnancy complaints and raising healthy babies.
Learn more about Dr. Bean at www.drtaylorbean.com