How does stress impact your immune system?

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We’ve been living through a global pandemic, so it’s no wonder stress levels have crept up in most people’s lives. One of the ways stress impacts our body is by preventing our immune system from functioning at its best. But how can you spot the signs of stress and what can you do to keep it in check?

Good and bad stress

Some stress can actually be good for us—stress helps your body conserve energy when it’s hungry, instigates the fight-or-flight response when faced with danger and can help the immune system fight injury or infection. However, chronic or prolonged stress can negatively impact the body’s immune response.

How does stress affect your immune system?

Stress can make you more vulnerable to contracting illnesses. It raises your cortisol levels, which can weaken your immune system if they stay high for too long. Stress can also damage your body’s own cells and even trigger responses from your immune system, including elevating inflammation, which can make you more susceptible to viruses and infections.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an example of a particularly stressful life event that can cause what experts call “chronic stress”. Chronic stress is prolonged, severe stress and can affect the immune system by decreasing the body’s lymphocytes—white blood cells that help fight off infection.

So how do you know if you’re stressed?

Do you find yourself constantly sleepy? Or irritable in some way? These are signs of stress. Other common signs to watch for include acne, frequent headaches and lack of energy.

Stress also shows up in the form of increased heart rate and tense muscles. This is caused by the brain flooding the body with chemicals and hormones to help you deal with what’s making you stressed or uncomfortable.

If you feel you need help managing stress, consider seeking support or speaking to your health care provider.

Tips to help you manage stress

Eat a healthy diet. A varied, healthy diet full of micronutrients is essential for maintaining a healthy immune system. Eat foods rich in nutrients like vitamins C and D and zinc which have been singled out as important for immunity. There’s also plenty of plant foods that help mood, anxiety and even depression.

Exercise. Getting active can help protect your immune system. Exercise doesn’t need to be intense to help manage stress—moderate intensity exercise will do the trick (like walking, jogging or riding your bike).

Touch. Emotions have a big impact on our bodies, so it makes sense that the more connected and supported we feel, the less stressed we are. While we still need to stay safe and practise social distancing, if you live with people you can safely give a good hug to, then go for it!

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