These are crazy, stressful times. The constant talk of viruses, symptoms and vaccines come up daily in conversation and are plastered all over the media. We are also surrounded by the expected low frequency hum of school, work, traffic and other daily deeds that may leave us feeling heightened once and awhile. These daily stressors are sometimes coupled with seasons of personal conflict and inner turmoil to be weathered. When any of these factors surge it is enough to make us feel tense. This past year we have the added excitement of pandemic implications, sudden financial struggles, job loss, new rules, sickness, death, isolation and weird political acrobats dancing on our already stressed out minds and bodies. I think now is a good time to understand the basics of how our immune system works, especially when it is being constantly challenged with different levels of stress and how we can support ourselves through these tough times.
The immune system is frequently likened to a fortress; having an organized infrastructure of troops inside the walls that protects us from intruders and keeps unwanted visitors out. Our troops of cells and proteins protect us from infection and foreign bodies, as well as maintain a stable equilibrium within our system. It is a big job that includes many factions. Simply put, we have our fast acting natural or non specific immunity which we were born with; it consists of our skin, mucus, and processes such as inflammatory responses and fevers to protect us from foreign bodies. We also have our slower acting specific immunity which is led by cells that detect and deactivate pathogens such as our antibodies and many other moderating cells. These processes are facilitated by signals from our endocrine and nervous system and are supported by organs such as our thymus, bone marrow, spleen, tonsils, lymph system, adenoids, skin and the liver. It is a fine orchestrated operation, it’s only goal is to keep our bodies healthy so we can survive another day. But what happens to our immune system when too much stress is a factor?
HOW DOES STRESS EFFECT OUR IMMUNITY?
Segerstrom and Miller’s (2004) meta analysis, “Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System” discussed five levels of stress:
“Acute time-limited stressors involve laboratory challenges such as public speaking or mental arithmetic. Brief naturalistic stressors, such as academic examinations, involve a person confronting a real-life short-term challenge. In stressful event sequences, a focal event, such as the loss of a spouse or a major natural disaster, gives rise to a series of related challenges. Although affected individuals usually do not know exactly when these challenges will subside, they have a clear sense that at some point in the future they will. Chronic stressors, unlike the other demands we have described, usually pervade a person’s life, forcing him or her to restructure his or her identity or social roles. Another feature of chronic stressors is their stability—the person either does not know whether or when the challenge will end or can be certain that it will never end. Examples of chronic stressors include suffering a traumatic injury that leads to physical disability, providing care for a spouse with severe dementia, or being a refugee forced out of one’s native country by war. Distant stressors are traumatic experiences that occurred in the distant past yet have the potential to continue modifying immune system function because of their long-lasting cognitive and emotional sequelae. Examples of distant stressors include having been sexually assaulted as a child, having witnessed the death of a fellow soldier during combat, and having been a prisoner of war”
ACUTE VS CHRONIC STRESS
A clear distinction is made between acute and chronic stressors. The acute stress we experience often in our daily lives such as traffic, meetings or even a grazed knee gives us an increase in immune parameters, especially natural immunity (Segerstrom & Miller 2004). Our immune system kicks into gear to protect us from any immediate threat we encounter. We are built for acute instances of stress, our bodies are great at taking care of us in these situations. But when things are challenged over time with no discernible end in sight, such as living through a pandemic, the chronic stress we experience takes its toll. Together our nonspecific and specific immunity are negatively impacted, especially if we are much older or have pre existing illnesses. The effects of prolonged stress can affect a multiplicity of our bodies systems, interfering negatively with our cardiovascular and reproductive systems, among others. Signs of chronic stress are mental and physical fatigue, irritability, headaches, intrusive thoughts, heart palpitations, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, muscle aches, digestive issues, and lack of appetite to name a few. How do we intervene in the seemingly constant positive feedback loop of chronic stress to mitigate the damage these negative effects have?
WHAT CAN WE DO TO SUPPORT OUR IMMUNE SYSTEMS?
Making an effort in supporting ourselves through these uncertain times is an exercise in damage control. We can not always control the instability around us but we can make an effort to support the instability created internally so we remain strong and healthy amid challenging times. During these winter months, when getting sick is on everyone’s mind, eating food that makes us feel energized, taking time for the hobbies and pastimes we enjoy, regular exercise, even cleaning and moisturizing our skin, and of course my favorite, getting a therapeutic massage, all act globally on our anatomy to help re balance our homeostasis. Massage and stress reduction have been interrelated for thousands of years, by many cultures. They both communicate to the body through neural pathways, each having their own chemical and hormonal effects. A moderate pressure massage encourages enhanced attentiveness, reduced depression and improved immune function (increased natural killer cells and natural killer cell activity) (Field 2014). Massage decreases stress and is paramount in supporting all our systems.
By knowing how our immune system works, what challenges it and how to support it, we are active participants in our own mental and physical health and well being. The immune system is very good at taking care of us but needs reinforcement when it is being bombarded by constant stress. The concept of ‘taking care of yourself to be able to take care of others’ has really rang true for me this year. The only person in charge of how I treat my immediate health is myself. The healthier I am, the more I can massage and be a support to those around me.
Field, T. (2014). Massage therapy research review. Complementary therapies in clinical practice, 20(4),
Segerstrom, S. C., & Miller, G. E. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: a
meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological bulletin, 130(4), 601.