Life seems to get more hectic every year. In fact, some days it can feel like there's an endless list of things to stress over. But if the weight of the world seems to be consistently resting on your shoulders, you could be putting your health at risk.
Since April is Stress Awareness Month, we thought it would be the perfect time to take a look at the effects of stress and how it interacts with your immune system. We’ll also spotlight six simple yet powerful ways to decompress your stress when life gets to be a bit too much.
How Does Stress Affect Immunity?
Believe it or not, stress can be a good thing. For example, short-term stress can boost immuno-protective functions like wound healing by increasing the number of immune cells in the blood and changing the way they circulate.1 That’s great when you’re injured since stress then kickstarts an immune response that instigates healing. Once the problem is resolved, your immune system is designed to return to normal.
But if you’re constantly stressed to the max, your immune system can become compromised. Whether it’s the pressures of a demanding job or a rocky relationship, prolonged periods of stress can suppress the immune response, leaving your body less equipped to deal with harmful intruders.2 There are also several signs that you may have a weakened immune system too. This is because unrelenting stress impairs the activity of your white blood cells, which are key to helping the body fight infections and other diseases.3 This not only sets you up to catch whatever happens to be going around that year, it can also result in more severe illness. Adding insult to injury, people who are stressed often resort to unhealthy behaviors like snacking, smoking, and drinking alcohol to get through those rough patches. These indulgences may feel good in the moment but they can further weaken your immune system and actually make the impact of stress worse in the long run.
Ways to Relieve Stress
Learning to let go of stress probably won’t happen overnight. But with practice and as little patience, you’ll be well on your way to better coping with the challenges of modern life. Here are some tips to help you deal with whatever stressors life brings:
Get your zen on. Stepping back and clearing you mind for 10 to 20 minutes each day can positively influence not only your mental state but your immune system as well. Meditation has been shown to fortify white blood cells and reduce cortisol, the stress hormone that can prematurely age your immune cells. Chill out with a meditation app like Calm, Meditopia, or Headspace.
Clean up your diet. What you eat has been shown to play a big role in how your body handles stress.4 That’s why it’s important to pack your plate with stress-busting foods like salmon, eggs, artichokes, and kimchi. At the same time, be sure to clear your cabinets of stress-promoting fare like ultra-processed snacks, sugary treats, coffee, and alcohol.
Supplement this! When it comes to stress, even a healthy diet can use a little support. A daily supplement regimen can work wonders to reduce stress, strengthen your immune system, and improve overall well-being. For example, Aged Garlic Extract has been shown to decrease the stress-related hormones cortisol and corticosterone.5 The B vitamins are also effective at combating stress. In one trial, participants taking a combination of B vitamins for a month reported significant improvements in self-perceived stress, overall health, and energy levels.6
Work it out. Exercise is a great way to put stress in its place. But regular workouts also have the added benefit of improving immune function. But you don’t have to dial up the intensity too much to get the stress-busting benefits of exercise. Activities like tai chi and yoga may not require the same fervor as CrossFit or Zumba, but they’re just as helpful at releasing tension and helping you find calm. Even an easy bike ride or lazy stroll around the neighborhood can help melt stress away.
Develop social connections. Social isolation and feelings of loneliness can undermine your immune response.7 That’s why having a social network that you interact with on a regular basis can be so important. Laughing and having fun can elevate mood, lessen stress, and even ease pain. So make it a point to spend time with family and friends—or make new connections through volunteering or via local Meetup groups.
Start growing. Exercising your green thumb is another way to bury stress and foster immunity. Gardening helps reduce anxiety, depression, stress, and even your body mass index (BMI), all while boosting your quality of life, physical activity levels, and cognitive function. Bonus? Spending a little time in the sun will give your body that necessary hit of immune-supporting vitamin D, too.
While stress may be an unavoidable part of life, you don’t have to let it get the better of you or your health. Understanding the risks long-term stress can pose—and practicing ways to minimize its impact—can give your immune system a fighting chance whenever life throws a stressful situation your way.
- Dhabhar FS. Enhancing versus suppressive effects of stress on immune function: implications for immunoprotection and immunopathology. Neuroimmunomodulation. 2009;16(5):300-317.
- Dhabhar, F.S. Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Immunol Res. 58, 193–210 (2014).
- Devi S, Alexandre YO, Loi JK, et al. Adrenergic regulation of the vasculature impairs leukocyte interstitial migration and suppresses immune responses. Immunity. 2021;54(6):1219-1230..
- Ulrich-Lai YM, Fulton S, Wilson M, et al. Stress exposure, food intake and emotional state. Stress. 2015;18(4):381-399.
- Hwang KA, Hwang YJ, Hwang IG, et al. Low temperature-aged garlic extract suppresses psychological stress by modulation of stress hormones and oxidative stress response in brain. Journal of the Chinese Medical Association. 2019;82(3):191-195.
- Kennedy DO, Veasey R, Watson A, et al. Effects of high-dose B vitamin complex with vitamin C and minerals on subjective mood and performance in healthy males. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2010;211(1):55-68.
- Pressman SD, Cohen S, Miller GE, et al. Loneliness, social network size, and immune response to influenza vaccination in college freshmen. Health Psychology. 2005;24(3), 297–306.
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.