How Does Stress Affect Your Immunity?

Clinically reviewed by our Board of Advisors

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If you’ve ever come down with a cold after an important presentation at school or work, you may already suspect that stress can affect your immune system. You’d be right.

But, until now, you may not have thought about how stress negatively impacts your immunity.

In short, there’s a reciprocal relationship: stress can decrease immunity, and decreased immunity can also worsen psychological stress.

In this guide, we’ll take an in-depth look at the connection between the two. We’ll also provide tips on boosting your immunity and stressing less.

The Relationship Between Immunity and Stress

Although your body is made up of thousands of moving parts, you should think of it as a single organism. Each piece of the puzzle comes together to create a unified whole.

The interconnectedness between stress and the immune system is crystal clear

A now-famous study from the 1980s demonstrated that stress can weaken the immune system.

  • Psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Ph.D., and immunologist Ronald Glaser, Ph.D. conducted an experiment that measured immunity and stress among medical students before and after their exams.
  • After comparing blood samples from the students, the researchers found that the stressful three-day period of exams caused a decrease in natural immunity.

Further studies have only strengthened the outcome of that early research.

However, this summary only suggests that stress does affect your immune response. To investigate how stress affects the immune system, we have to dive deeper into the science behind stress and immunity.

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Why Do We Feel Stress?

It may seem unlikely that the pressure you feel from a looming deadline is a life-saver, but it’s true—in a sense. Stress triggers your “fight or flight” response in an attempt to protect you from danger.

When your body is under stress, it prepares itself instinctively for a negative outcome — which for much of human history meant serious physical harm. One of these innate preparations is to modify the immune response. We’ll touch on this more soon.

While this fight or flight reaction helped our ancestors navigate the dangers of their everyday life, it’s less useful in our modern world.

Today, most stress comes from life events that—while sometimes unpleasant—are not life-threatening. Upcoming exams, project presentations at work, the thought of a conversation you need to have with your spouse—these are all sources of stress in the 21st Century. In these cases, stress is a way for our bodies to stay on high alert.

The Science Behind Stress

How can this familiar feeling have such a profound impact on the body?

When your body perceives a threat—real or imagined—your brain sends messages that tell your body to produce two hormones:1

  • Cortisol – Often called the “stress hormone,” cortisol helps your body prepare for a stressful situation by increasing blood sugar and suppressing digestive, growth, and reproductive processes. 
  • Adrenaline – Also known as epinephrine, adrenaline kicks your body into high gear. The hormone raises your blood pressure, heart rate, and energy supplies.

Almost every cell in the body has receptors for one or both of these hormones, which means stress can impact all kinds of tissues and processes—including your immune response.

Under normal circumstances, your central nervous system should return to normal after a stressor disappears. Keep in mind that short bursts of stress aren’t harmful. In fact, they protect us from hazards.

However, long-term, chronic stress, may negatively affect your immune system.

Putting it All Together: How Stress Affects the Immune System

As mentioned, the primary purpose of stress is to keep you alive. This section of the article explains why cortisol and adrenaline suppress or alter some bodily functions deemed “nonessential” during a life-or-death situation. One of these functions is your immune response.2

When chronic stress occurs, your body continues producing stress hormones. These hormones, in turn, keep suppressing your natural immunity, making you more susceptible to illness.

In other words, when you’re exposed to short- or long-term stress, your body responds. Typical effects of chronic stress on the immune system include:1

  • A decrease in the natural killer cells (NK cells)  that control irregular cell growth and microbial infections
  • A drop in the production of gamma interferon, a protein vital to innate and adaptive immunity
  • Problems with the distribution of white blood cells throughout the body
  • Suppression of antibody production

These physiological responses leave you more vulnerable to infection and disease.

Immunity and Stress: A Two-Way Street

As mentioned earlier, while stress affects immunity, immunity also affects stress.

Because the relationship goes both ways, a feedback loop occurs:

  • An external stressor triggers a response that weakens the immune system
  • A weaker immune system makes you more susceptible to illness and infections
  • Sickness makes it harder to complete daily tasks, leading to high stress levels
  • The cycle repeats

This feedback loop can make tackling stress a challenge, which is why some people turn to immune defense supplements.

Other Negative Impacts of Stress

When mental stress weakens your immune system, countless issues can crop up. An increased stress level can often lead to:3

  • Physiological effects – Stress can take a serious toll on the body. Common effects of stress include headaches and migraines, fatigue, problems sleeping, shortness of breath, and muscle tension.
  • Psychological effects – If you’ve ever felt anxious, restless, irritable, or sad during periods of high stress, you’re not alone. These are typical symptoms of elevated stress levels.
  • Behavioral effects – Those overwhelmed by stress may change their eating habits or avoid social interaction.

4 Tips for Reducing Stress and Boosting Immunity

Managing stress can help boost your immunity, and strengthening your immune system can help with stress. As such, addressing one issue or the other can lead to overall health benefits.

Luckily, there are several ways to tackle your daily tension. Here are four tips for preventing and alleviating the build-up of stress in your life.

#1 Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule

One of the many signs of a weak immune system is a constant feeling of exhaustion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, sleep and stress are also related. Adults who get fewer than eight hours of sleep each night are more likely to notice stress symptoms.4

With that said, eight hours isn’t the ideal amount of sleep for everyone. The CDC suggests:5

  • 9–12 hours for school-age children aged 6 to 12
  • 8–10 hours for teenagers aged 13 to 18
  • 7 or more hours for adults aged 18 to 60
  • 7–9 hours for adults aged 61 to 64
  • 7–8 hours for adults 65 years and up

Finally, don’t forget that sleep regularity is as important as duration. Try to stick to a bedtime routine by settling in at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning.

#2 Take Immunity-Boosting Supplements

If frequent colds and infections have you feeling stressed out, dietary supplements could provide the immunity boost you’re looking for.

The right supplements can help provide the nutrients needed to kickstart your immune system. For example, a liposomal Synergy Vitamin C helps you uptake more of an essential vitamin that plays a role in healing and immunity.

Other supplements are designed to address your mood and well-being, like Cymbiotika’s Adrenal Super Tonic. With organic lavender and rose geranium hydrosols, this supplement can help with stress management.

Once you start to feel better, you can tackle more of the stress in your life.

#3 Enjoy Physical Activity

Exercise releases endorphins and dopamine, which reduce pain and increase feelings of satisfaction. Both of these hormones ultimately help with stress management.

In fact, regular exercise has been shown to:6

  • Decrease stress levels
  • Improve and stabilize your mood
  • Boost self-esteem
  • Enhance sleep quality

Coupling physical activity with mindfulness can be even more effective at reducing stress. Practices like yoga and tai chi combine movement and relaxation, keeping you relaxed and revitalizing your immune system.

#4 Eat a Balanced Diet

A healthy diet can keep you full of energy, while also improving your immune response. There are several minerals and vitamins that boost your immune system, such as:

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Selenium
  • Zinc
  • Iron

Your body can perform optimally when it receives the proper fuel. A diet rich in foods that boost your immune system can help you melt your stress away.

Cymbiotika: Your Stress-Free Approach to a Strong Immune System

You’ll never be immune to the stressors in your life. But with Cymbiotika, there’s no need to stress about your immune system. Our immune defense supplements are packed to the brim with essential nutrients that help keep your natural immunity in tip-top shape.

One piece of the immunity puzzle is low stress levels, so why make it any harder to take the vitamins and minerals you need? Try our Synergy Vitamin D3 + K2 + CoQ10 supplement or Elderberry Defense Oil to give your immune system a boost.


Sources: 

  1. Springer. Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12026-014-8517-0 
  2. Mayo Clinic. Chronic stress puts your health at risk. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037 
  3. Mayo Clinic. Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987 
  4. American Psychological Association. Stress and Sleep. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/sleep 
  5. Center for Disease Control. How Much Sleep Do I Need? https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html 
  6. Anxiety & Depression Association of America. Physical Activity Reduces Stress. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/stress/physical-activity-reduces-st
  7. American Psychological Association. Stress Weakens the Immune System. https://www.apa.org/research/action/immune 

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