Stress and your immune system

Stress and your immune system

I wanted to share what happened to me this week, and how stress can affect your body and immune system in weird ways.

stress immune system function

It all started on Saturday when some itchy spots came up. I just assumed they were insect bites, now that the weather is getting warmer. As it got worse, I dropped by the chemist to ask for a cream to apply to “itchy bites or a rash”. That was a mistake (which I will touch on later), and they recommended a cortisone cream to reduce the inflammation and irritation.

After no improvement from the cream and it spreading even more, I had to go see my GP. She took one look at it, and described it as a “textbook case of shingles”. This is the dormant chickenpox virus which resides in the spinal cord and is usually kept in check by a healthy immune system. When my GP said that my immune system must have issues, I was a bit shocked! “Wait a minute! I am eating well, sleeping enough, still exercising regularly, have a good work/life balance, and have an easy-going personality! My immune system should be fine!?”

Well, deeper analysis confirmed otherwise. 2016 has not been a banner year for anyone, with celebrity deaths and geopolitical issues abound. Well, November 2016 seemed to be a concentration of stress and terribleness for me!

  1. It all started a couple of months ago when I had some teeth issues with sensitivity that eventually got diagnosed to a cracked tooth that initially required a root canal and crown which would have cost thousands of dollars. A second opinion in November showed that the crack was likely too deep and would require an extraction (hundreds of dollars, yay!), and then 6 months down the track a dental implant (back to thousands of dollars, boo…). Due to the crack there was gum infection that was taxing my immune system, as well as added financial stress.
  2. On the first Saturday of November we had a Taekwondo Black Belt class, where the senior grades of Walsh Martial Arts Australia around Sydney train at a higher level than our general classes. Now that I am an instructor, I don’t get to train myself as often as I would like or should. Long story short, my left side was a little bit off and a graceful attempt at a turning kick, jump 360deg turning kick resulted in an awkward landing on top of my left foot. It immediately swelled up, felt tender and was difficult to walk on. I struggled through with Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation over the weekend and booked in an appointment with my podiatrist on Monday. Got a referral for a scan, and it ended up being a fracture of the 5th metatarsal left foot, equalling a moonboot for 6 weeks.
  3. Finally, I hesitate to get political, but the cherry on top was the election of Donald J. Trump as leader of the free world, and commander-in-chief of its military might. The result was shock enough, but the steady and constant trickle of news of his business conflicts of interests, hypocritical statements and actions, and appointments of far-right cronies and donors to important cabinet positions meant that I was in a constant state of denial, anger, frustration and disbelief. There is a real risk of civil rights, climate science, and fundamental democratic principles being undermined in America, and a spread of nationalism and xenophobia in Western democracies. Domestic politics on a Federal and State level are equally frustrating but at least they do not have the global impact that the US Elections do.

All these factors put my body in a constant state of FIGHT OR FLIGHT, which is what leads to adrenal fatigue and reduced immune system function. Adrenaline and Cortisol are important hormones for a healthy body – Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.

However, Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. The body’s stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities. But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on. The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes.

It’s this CONSTANT state of stress that suppressed my immune function and released the dormant virus that is perversely causing me even more stress and anxiety! Rubbing in some cortisone cream certainly did not help.

For you though, it might be the fact that the 9-5 grind has now expanded to 8-6, 7, 8pm or even longer! Or the constant connectivity to work via home laptop or phone means you never get away from the office. Possibly you’re struggling to get into the booming Sydney property market, or the soaring cost of education and health care (sorry to get political again!), or any number of things that might be causing constant flight or flight responses.

To address this, I have done a Facebook detox of all my political news pages, picked up some anti-inflammatory supplements, and will maintain a balanced lifestyle in line with the M.A.R.T.I.A.L. System and relax more leading up to Christmas. As I recover from my dental issues and foot injuries, and concentrate on things other than politics like my friends, family, business and hobbies, my stress levels will decrease and my immune system will recover.

If you’re looking for some more information, here is an article by my good friend and qualified naturopath Beth Bridges, that addresses what you can do to reduce stress.

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