The human immune system is incredibly complex, and it cleverly communicates with other systems in our body such as the endocrine and nervous systems. It can be divided into the innate and adaptive immune systems. The innate arm of the immune system is like the front-line soldiers of an army. They are front and centre of the battle when a pathogen invades and are not specific in the pathogens they attack. The adaptive immune system a second-line defence and is more like a special forces team. It learns and remembers the specific markings of a pathogen, securing those details in specialised memory cells. If and when that same pathogen invades again, there is a team of specific immune cells that are deployed to target that pathogen.

Stress significantly impacts the way our immune system functions. When we are exposed to chronic stressors (be it work pressures, financial concerns, high workloads, relationship strains, etc.), our adrenal glands tend to go into overdrive. The adrenals are tiny glands that sit on top of our kidneys and pump out hormones that help us to respond appropriately to stressors.

In an acute situation, say leaping out of the way of an oncoming bus, these hormones (adrenalin being the primary hormone) kick us into gear, in what is known as the fight-or-flight response. These types of acute stressors also boost our innate immune cells (the soldiers), preparing for any potential injury should it occur.

Chronic stressors that we are exposed to daily or over extended periods of time stimulate the release of another stress hormone, cortisol. In small bursts, cortisol is a great anti-inflammatory hormone and helps to restore homeostasis following exposure to an acute stressor. However, the prolonged secretion of cortisol (that occurs with chronic stress) can have a detrimental effect on many of our organ systems including the gut, the nervous system, and the immune system.

The constant release of cortisol suppresses both the innate and adaptive arms of the immune system, leaving us vulnerable to infections such as cold or flu viruses, respiratory tract infections, and gastro bugs. Just to name a few.

Reducing managing your stress levels

Initially, I titled this section “reducing your stress levels”. On reflection, it is impractical (and in some cases, impossible) for us to remove stressors from our lives. A better approach is to adjust the way we react to stressors, which in turn helps to minimise the impact on our nervous, endocrine and immune systems.

So, how can we better manage our stress levels? Well, the answer is going to be a little different for each of us as we all have different ways of finding calmness. Here are a few tried and tested strategies, give them a go and find what works best for you.

#1 — Just breathe

Slowing down our breathing can switch off the “fight or flight” part of the nervous system and activate the “rest and relax” part. The Buteyko breathing method is an effective technique, that aims to balance the levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in our bodies. It is very effective for switching off that “flight or fight” response. It is also beneficial for those with asthma and chronic sinus issues.

Actively switching on our “rest and relax” nervous system throughout the day can help to combat chronic stress and its negative effect on immune function. While the training for the Buteyko breathing technique is quite extensive, here is a video link for a 4-minute breathing exercise that you can do anywhere, any time of the day.

4-minute breathing exercise — breath holds with naturopath, Mim Beim

#2 — Find a few moments of calm. Everyday.

Each day, find 10, 20 or even 30 minutes to do an activity that calms the mind and soothes the nervous system. It might be a meditation practice, some mindful colouring-in, playing a musical instrument, deep breathing exercises, a walk along the beach or in a park. Whatever it is you choose, practice it mindfully, be present and take a few moments to set an intention before you start.

#3 — Get moving

We all know that regular exercise has many, many health benefits. But, did you know that moderate physical activity can boost immune function and may reduce the risk of infection? Research is yet to clarify exactly how exercise gives the immune system a boost, but there are a number of possible mechanisms:

  • Our lungs and airways are put to use when we increase physical activity, which may help to stimulate the flushing out of mucus and any pathogens trapped in that mucus.
  • The slight rise in body temperature during exercise and physical activity may help to prevent the reproduction of pathogens — similar to the way a fever does.
  • Moderate exercise can reduce the secretion of stress hormones such as cortisol. Because the chronic release of stress hormones may impede immune function, lowering them may have a beneficial effect on our immune function.
  • Preliminary studies have found that production and circulation of white blood cells and antibodies increases in response to exercise. However, it is unclear as to how much of an impact this has on reducing the risk of infection.

It is important to note that overdoing things on the exercise front may actually reduce immune function, so remember to practice moderation to reap the immune-boosting benefits of physical activity.

#4 — Sleep it off

Sleep is essential for our survival as human beings. It is an important physiological process for restoration and repair of the body. The quality and quantity of the sleep we get can determine how effectively our immune system operates. Sleep and the immune system have a bidirectional relationship, thus and imbalance in one can potentially upset the other.

Research shows that sleep deprivation is associated with increased inflammatory markers and lowered immune function. Additionally, poor sleep efficiency increases susceptibility to the common cold virus. Improving the amount and quality of your sleep may afford you better immune protection this winter.

On the other hand, during an infection (particularly during the acute phase), our sleep patterns are altered. Generally, the duration of the slow-wave (deep) sleep phase is prolonged, while wakefulness diminishes. During an infection, large amounts of energy are allocated to the immune system so that it can eliminate the pathogen and repair any tissue damage. This leaves much less energy available for other organ systems of the body, so resting during an illness is crucial for recovery.

The moral of this story

Our immune system is very much impacted by the stressors in our life. While we cannot completely avoid stress or prevent exposure to nasty pathogens, we can moderate our stress response. Ensuring that our immune system is functioning at its best will give us a fighting chance for if we do come across an unwelcome bug this winter. And if you do succumb to an infection, take a day or two of R&R — it may save you a week or two of valuable sick leave. Plus, everybody at work will be much happier if you keep any lurgies all to yourself.

If you are in need of some naturopathic and/or nutritional support for stress or immune health, I would be happy to help. Book your consultation with me here


Sarah Woolner

I’m Sarah — a qualified naturopath and food enthusiast. I am currently practicing on Sydney's Northern Beaches, in Brookvale and Mosman. If you would like to make an appointment please send me an email via the contact page.

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