Can Stress Really Impact Your Immune System?

cancer stressAccording to the scientific study of Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) the answer is yes. But we are humans, living in an amazing complex body where most things can be not only black or white but where there’s many shades of gray.

To begin with Stress is a subjective phenomenon. Generally speaking though, it is accepted that stress is a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.

To make things a little less simple, there is “good stress” and “bad stress”. Good stress is deemed “good” because it can give an extra boost of energy or alertness to increase performance. Bad stress is stress that is unrelenting and can be detrimental to mental and physical health. Chronic stress is good stress gone bad if you will; when the fight or flight response does not turn off once the threat is over. 1

So how does stress weaken your immune system?

Chronic stress creates high levels of hormones like cortisol and other corticosteroids, which, if persisting over a long period of time  can impact us both mentally and physically. People who suffer from chronic stress may experience mental issues including: anxiety, depression, and sleep issues. Physical symptoms can range from high blood pressure and heart disease to digestive issues and a weakened immune system.

The immune system is comprised of organs, tissues, cells, and cell products that work together to fight harmful pathogens that cause infection and disease. There are two ways that stress has a direct, negative effect on the immune system. It can create chronic inflammation and lower the immunity of those who otherwise might have a healthy immune system. 1

Excess cortisol

Cortisol suppresses inflammation during a stress response, but if cortisol stays in the blood for long periods, the body can develop a resistance and will not respond to it properly. Instead, the body will increase production of substances that promote inflammation causing chronic inflammation in the body that can eventually lead to autoimmune diseases, chronic conditions, acute illnesses, and lengthy healing times. 1

Here are a few examples of how stress can influence the immune system:

  • Bereavement

It’s common to hear stories of recently bereaved spouses who die soon after their partner. One study followed 95,647 recently widowed individuals and found that during the first week after bereavement, mortality was twice the expected rate.

  • The digestive system

There is an association between sustained stress and the onset of symptoms in gastrointestinal disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.

  • Cancer

A patient’s outlook and his/her quantity and quality of psychological support can impact the outcome of that person’s disease.

  • HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)

Studies show how elevated levels of stress combined with diminished social support can accelerate the progression of the HIV infection.

  • Longer wound healing time
  • Increased levels of fear or distress before surgery can create longer hospital stays, more postoperative complications, and higher rates of re-hospitalization. A study on patients with chronic lower leg wounds found that those who had higher levels of anxiety and depression showed considerably delayed healing. 2

How do our thoughts influence the immune system?

There is a science that studies the interaction between psychological processes and how these affect the body’s nervous and immune systems. It’s called psychoneuroimmunology or PNI for short. PNI takes into account many of the body’s systems and how they are interconnected combining:

  • Behavioral medicine
  • Endocrinology
  • Genetics
  • Immunology
  • Infectious diseases
  • Pharmacology
  • Psychiatry
  • Psychology
  • Physiology
  • Molecular biology
  • Neuroscience
  • Rheumatology

PNI looks at the entire body and how all the systems function in tandem with one another to provide the patient with whole body care. 3

If you have questions about how PNI can help you deal with the stress of cancer treatments, please feel free to contact me now by email or phone 617.564.0707.




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