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home : health : health November 21, 2017

10/10/2017 1:20:00 PM
Stress and the immune system
By Dr. Kim Hapke

As we head into cold and flu season, many of us do so with an increased level of stress. Whatever particular cocktail of events you find stressful, it is likely you have encountered at least some of the ingredients in the last few months. Stress can take a toll on sleep, mood - and the immune system.

Fortunately, there are ways to help the body recover from a period of stress that also benefit the immune system.

During an event we find acutely stressful, our brain puts out a small amount of adrenaline. Our adrenals pick up that signal and amplify it, providing us with the "flight-or-fight response" of increased heart rate, blood pressure and blood to the muscles.

Longer-term stress is different. In response to long-term stress, our adrenals put out a hormone called cortisol. Rather than preparing us for flight, cortisol tells the body to hunker down for the long haul. Long-term stress for our ancestors was often a period of famine. As a result, cortisol has some less-than-helpful messages for our bodies under modern-day stresses. It increases our appetite and helps us put on weight. It suppresses our immune system, leaving us vulnerable to infection.

Sleep is one of the top interventions to help the body recover from stress. When we sleep, our body puts out certain proteins that help us fight infection. Since rising cortisol is the signal that wakes up in the morning, raised cortisol from stress can take a toll on sleep patterns. If your sleep is disrupted, note that blue light from digital devices messes with melatonin, the hormone that induces us to sleep.

Turn off the TV and computer (and the stressful information on them!) at least two hours before bed to aid proper sleep induction. After a period of stress your body may temporarily need more sleep than normal to recover.

A balanced diet can help mitigate the effects of stress. One of the roles of cortisol is to help the body deal with blood-sugar maintenance. After insulin has dealt with the influx of glucose from a meal, cortisol is released to pull sugar from cells to maintain blood glucose. If we are taking in meals with lots of sugar or simple carbohydrates our body puts out lots of insulin, then lots of cortisol when blood-sugar drops precipitously. This roller coaster takes a toll on already stressed adrenals. Include whole grains, fiber from fruits and vegetables, protein and good fats with each meal to balance out insulin and cortisol release and provide optimal nutrition for the immune system. (See related story, page 15.)

Certain nutrients help the body deal with stress. Vitamin C is used by the adrenals in greater amounts during stress and is also necessary for certain cells of the immune system to function. The B vitamins are also supportive to both the adrenals and the immune system.

Two classes of herbs are especially beneficial in helping the body deal with and recover from stress. Nervines are nourishing to the nervous system and mildly calming rather than sedative. Examples that can be taken in tea or tincture are chamomile, oat straw and lemon balm. Lemon balm has the added benefit of having anti-viral properties. Or, support a sense of calm by diffusing an essential oil like lavender in your environment.

The other group of herbs is known as adaptogens. They help the body adapt to stress, often by helping to balance cortisol and blood-sugar response, and supporting the adrenals and immune system. Licorice is one of the best herbs to aid recovery of depleted adrenals. It is nourishing, with constituents similar in structure to adrenal hormones, and has a naturally sweet taste. Avoid licorice if you have high blood pressure. Astragalus is another adaptogenic herb that balances cortisol and is especially known for supporting the immune system. Ashwaganda increases the body's ability to adapt to stress and promotes stamina.

These interventions can aid in recovering from an unavoidable period of stress, but if you are reaching for them often it is time to examine your mind's reaction to events.

"Stress" is a blanket word - its meaning differs from person to person. It encompasses a wide range of physical, mental and emotional reactions to the emotions, people and events that take their greatest toll on us. Though it is long-term work to cultivate mindfulness and change our way of reacting to events outside our control, such work also offers the greatest benefit. There are many roads to becoming aware of and changing our patterns, from seeking help from a practitioner who focuses on changing long-term patterns to practices such as yoga, martial arts and meditation.

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