Immune System 101 (Part 4): Stress and Your Immune System

Immune System series

Immune health – the way you should look at it (a brief reminder)

1.  Your immune system is an amazing, intelligent tool for protecting you from viruses and disease.  

2.  It does not need you to ‘boost it’ or ‘supercharge it’.  In fact, doing so can make you very sick. 

3.  To really help your immune system work to its full potential you should do things that won’t weaken your immune system or leave you unnecessarily vulnerable. 

Research over the past four decades tells us that psychological stress will weaken your immune system.  In this article we take a look at ways to reduce your stress for immune system success. 

The research

I would always get a cold after my exams.  Every bloomin’ year.  So did all of my friends and I suspect many of you did to.  I always thought it was a seasonal thing (which was stupid given my exams ended in the summer) but science had a different explanation.  From 1982 through 1992, a group of researchers studied medical students. Among other things, they found that the students’ immunity went down every year under the simple stress of the three-day exam period. Test takers had fewer natural killer cells, which fight tumors and viral infections (1).   

Subsequent studies have gone on to prove that stress has an adverse effect on our immune systems.  For example, Carnegie Mellon University established that people under severe stress are more likely to catch cold when exposed to a virus than people under milder stress.  They showed that the higher a person’s stress score on a standard test, the more likely the person was to develop a cold when exposed to a cold virus. Stress was an important risk factor even when smoking, lack of exercise, poor diet, disturbed sleep and alcohol consumption were taken into account.  

It should be noted that this relates to longer periods of stress and not just a tough day. 


The sciencey bit

Your immune system has many cells that keep you healthy.  The main ones are called T and B cells.  These are the cells that do the fighting and produce friendly protein cells called cytokines and antibodies that destroy viruses and diseases that invade your body.  

All of the research found that your T-cells (the fighters that protect you against everything from viruses to life-threatening diseases such as cancer) decrease in the face of stress which makes you more vulnerable to infection.  

So managing and reducing your stress is an important part of keeping your immune system firing on all cylinders.  

De-stress for immune system success 

Managing stress, especially chronic or long-term stress (even if it’s not intense), will help your immune system.  

But de-stressing isn’t easy is it.  You could be getting stressed from your job, your relationship, a traumatic incident, your financial situation, the loss of a relationship or loved one and/or the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Perhaps it is something different but when a stressor exists, it can be hard to switch off.  Here are a few ways to unwind, even in the middle of life’s storms: 

1.  Meet up with friends

The Carnegie Mellon University study revealed another interesting fact about student immune health.  Notably, social isolation and feelings of loneliness each independently weakened first-year students’ immunity. In the study, students got flu shots at the university health centre, described their social networks, and kept track of their day-to-day feelings using a handheld computer. T hey also provided saliva samples for measuring levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  Small networks and loneliness each independently weakened immunity.  Immune response was most weakened by the combination of loneliness and small social networks, an obvious health stress facing shy new students who have yet to build their friendship circles.  The thing is, when we are stressed we tend to isolate.  Avoid this temptation and book in regular time with friends and loved ones.  

2.  Create a control room

Difficult moments often make us feel stressed because we feel out of control.  A control room is a safe time and space (preferably in the morning before the day kicks off but any time works) where you can fill up on life giving material e.g. your favourite books, a podcast, scripture, a video from a conference you have been to etc. I then typically journal a few things e.g. what I learned, any ideas I have, how I am going to make progress on my goals, what joyous things I am going to do and who I am going to spend time with this week. This time allows me to change my perspective and focus.  It really does work.  

3. Get yourself outdoors and near water

Science has been very consistent over the last decade – being by water is good for your body and your mind.

An extensive 2013 study on happiness in natural environments studied people’s sense of wellbeing in random environments – from shopping centres and other urban spots to natural places including green (parks, forests, fields) and blue spaces (sea, rivers, lakes etc).  The study worked by prompting 20,000 smartphone users to record their sense of wellbeing and their immediate environment at random intervals.  Coastal spaces were found to be the happiest places to be (by far).  

Studies show that its not just the sea that has this effect.  Rivers, lakes, streams, even fountains have a positive effect on your wellbeing too. 

4.  Some other things that may work for you

The good news is, there are many ways to reduce stress.  A CEO of a large energy corporation once told me about his ‘circuit breaker’ approach to managing stress.  His job was very stressful and as he got older his resilience to stress got lower and lower.  So he introduced ‘circuit breaks’ into his day to stop the relentless charge.  This may have been a walk, or going to the gym, or playing a round of golf or taking his wife on a lunch date,  It all helps. 

Give yourself permission 

I suspect some of you, especially those caring for others, are struggling to emotionally justify a break.  We get it.  But make it a priority, it is so important for you and those you love and care about.  

Recent Posts

What being a Royal Marine Commando taught me about fitness

I am going to be honest. Being a Royal Marine Commando taught me more about health and fitness than all of my personal training courses combined. That’s no criticism of the teaching, rather a nod to the fact that health and fitness is a way of life in the Royal Marines because our lives depended on it.

Read More »
Body fat loss Transformation

Jeremy’s transformation

Saxony was desperate to lose weight. At 40% body fat, she felt unhealthy and nowhere near her physical potential. She had trained with a number of personal trainers before but they couldn’t help her achieve the transformation she wanted. Here’s how she got down to 20% body fat in just 16 weeks

Read More »
How to train when you are busy

How to make time for exercise when you are really busy

Most of us will struggle to find the time for exercise occasionally, and that’s perfectly ok – life happens. As a business owner and parent, I understand how time constraints can impact your health and fitness. I often have to remind myself that my health and fitness directly contribute to my business productivity and life.

Read More »