Stress and Immunity

Stressed Woman

Stressed Woman


In times of peak stress our bodies react by producing fight or flight responses. This primal reaction has been a part of human instinct since the first people were faced with a hungry saber tooth tiger back in the Ice Age. Fight or flight responses prepare our systems for defense by releasing the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Our heart rate speeds up and our digestive system and immune system slow down. Large amounts of oxygen and blood are sent to our muscles so we can easily spring into action.

As most modern day humans participate in fairly normal lives free from the need to defend ourselves from life threatening situations, one would think that the fight or flight instinct is becoming extinct. The opposite is actually true. Humans are experiencing fight or flight in response to other stressors in our lives, like work, relationships, and financial triggers. Because these stresses tend to hang around rather than present themselves and quickly disappear, the relaxation response that is supposed to follow a fight or flight instinct doesn’t always occur. 

Our bodies remain in high gear and the stress hormones remain in our systems far longer than intended. Stress can negatively affect our immune system because during periods of stress it is perpetually in low gear and instead of adapting, it just begins to waste away. 

People that experience chronic stress are more susceptible to headaches, colds, flu and other minor illnesses.  Additionally, because the immune system loses its ability to fight viruses and bacteria, risks of contracting autoimmune disorders, cancer and other diseases increases substantially. 

Activities like yoga, tai chi, and meditation can be useful tools for relieving stress levels and reducing the amount of cortisol present in our bodies. For periods of chronic stress: exercise, counseling, and even the strength of positive relationships can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and tension. 

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