The Impact of Stress on Immunity: How To Restore Balance

Chronic stress takes a serious toll on patient health, and, per the American Psychiatric Association CEO Norman B. Anderson, PhD, is a key driver of chronic illness and an enormous cost burden to patients, employers and the economy. The APA’s findings link health risks to predictable stress factors including money, work and family relationships, suggesting that mental pressure is a high-risk factor for chronic illness.

While many patients, including caregivers, will benefit from psychological care, there are practical therapeutic considerations that can help reduce these risks. As functional medicine doctors, more clinicians are taking an ecological, or systems, approach to patient wellbeing and treatment. For instance, nutritional products like probiotics, L-glutamine and GABA can be used to establish a health-promoting ecology within the body. Additionally, there are many ways to calm the mind and body during times of stress including moderate exercise, meditation, volunteering, getting out into nature and drawing, knitting or painting.

For our purposes “stress” can be described as “any condition that disrupts the balance between a living creature and its environment.” To restate this: stress is foremost an adaptive, physiological response to environmental stressors that either disrupt body function or threaten survival. Stress does not originate in the mind; it evolved out of our fight for survival. A simple way to explain this is that when the body is threatened, a brain pathway fires a signal and cortisol levels, blood pressure, neurotransmitters, and so on, rise. This normal, primitive response is healthy in short-term, acutely stressful scenarios where one’s life is at stake.

Learning to minimize both psychological and physiological stress seems obvious. Just ask anyone who is prone to anxiety or a worrier by nature. But what’s the solution? In a toxic world that never rests, where we are all exposed to chemicals, antibiotics, growth hormones and pesticides in our food supply, not to mention the air we breathe and the water we drink, and where basic economic, family and workplace pressures are sometimes relentless, how can anyone expect to fend off the ill health effects of stress?

The real question is: Why isn’t everyone sick?

Immune compromise and chronic illness begin to set in when systems go awry. Individuals start with varying capacity to mount a healthy response to a given stressor or multitude of stressors. For instance, a patient starting with a high-normal cortisol level will have a different reaction to viral and bacterial infections than a patient with a sustained low cortisol level. Add to that an emerging food sensitivity, or lack of food security altogether, along with a personal crisis and suddenly, all health breaks loose. Certainly, genetics and personal history are contributing factors, but so is grit.

Grit is what bestselling author and educator Angela Duckworth describes as the combination of passion and perseverance needed to not only excel but to thrive. Top performing athletes, for instance, have the capacity to notice small, seemingly insignificant areas of weakness and improve upon them. They don’t so much exploit their strengths as strengthen their areas of weakness through mindfulness and persistence. In the context of health this is a critical lesson often ignored. For anyone who’s suffering day in and day out with illness or pain, the first step can be to identify what drives their passion and to pursue it with a vengeance.

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