How Stress Affects Your Immune System—Plus Ways to Keep Calm and Stay Healthy

Published on May 10, 2022


By Gaia Herbs

Gaia Herbs

Have you noticed that when you’re stressed, you often don’t feel your best? It’s no coincidence: Stress and the immune system are inextricably linked. REF#1617 Indeed, your mind and body are closely connected and in constant “conversation,” with your mental health able to influence your physical health. A recent focus of study in the field of immunology has been the effects of chronic stress and how it directly affects cellular immunity.*

In this article, we’ll explore the complex relationship between stress and immunity, as well as simple ways to keep calm and stay healthy. We’ll also discuss how stress-induced immune responses work and what happens when we have them.

But before we dive in, it’s important to know how the immune system works and to understand the basic stress response.

What Is the Immune System and How Does It Work?

Your immune system is a large network of organs, tissues, and cells that works to keep you healthy. It defends your body against potentially harmful substances known as antigens, which include germs such as bacteria and viruses, toxins, and even damaged cells. REF#1618

How? It mounts an immune response when triggered by an external stressor (like a virus, toxin, or wound). Your immune system develops and deploys antibodies and cells to attack an antigen and keep it from causing harm. It also stores a memory of the antigen to recognize it in the future. That way, when the antigen tries to invade your body again, if your immune system is working correctly, it can respond quickly and efficiently, sending out the right antibodies to protect you. This protection is called immunity.

There are three different types of immunity:

  • Innate immunity: This refers to the type of protection you’re born with and your body’s first line of defense against antigens; this natural protection is provided by organs, tissues, and some cells. This is the complex immune system you have before you ever receive a vaccine, medication, or even catch a cold. 
  • Active immunity (sometimes called adaptive or acquired immunity): protection that develops after an infection or vaccine; you build up antibodies in response to the exposure, and the protection is typically long-lasting
  • Passive immunity: protection that occurs after you directly receive antibodies; in this case, your body does not make them itself, and this protection is usually short-lived. One example of this type of immunity is how antibodies are transferred from a pregnant person to their unborn child or how certain antibody treatments were administered to sick patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Unfortunately, the immune system doesn’t always function as it should. Certain conditions can impair immune function, as can some medications. Lack of sleep, poor diet, and other lifestyle choices as well as stress can all cause a weakened immune system, too.* Much more on the latter in a minute.

Understanding the Stress Response

Although you may not immediately think of it as such, the stress response cycle is a good thing. Like the immune system, it is designed to protect you against outside threats.

Say you’re walking in the woods and have a chance meeting with a bear. You want the stress response—aka the fight-or-flight response—to kick in!

Here’s how the cycle goes: When you encounter a stressor, your brain sounds the alarm throughout your body. This prompts your adrenal glands (part of your endocrine system) to release stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, to engage your sympathetic nervous system and help you flee to safety or fight back if needed. 

These hormones give you the boost of energy you need when threatened and alter bodily systems, including the immune system, in various ways to help you best survive or otherwise get through the stressful situation. REF#1619 In addition, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure elevates, and even your blood sugar spikes.*

Normally, once a threat has passed, these hormones return to their usual levels and your systems go back to their regular functioning. You stay well and the cycle is ready to begin again when called upon.

While you don’t likely regularly encounter bears in the woods, you do experience other stressful life events that can trigger the fight-or-flight response—from traffic to a difficult day at work, and the list goes on. Though our bodies don’t need to react to every day, non-life-threatening situations in this way, they’re evolutionarily predisposed to.

That can be a problem. Let’s explore this more.

How Are Stress and the Immune System Related?

Though we now understand that stress and immunity are connected, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, for quite some time, it was commonly accepted that the brain and immune system were separate entities that never interacted and that one’s psychological state couldn’t affect one’s physical well-being.

But pioneering research conducted in the 1980s and early 90s changed that way of thinking and provided concrete evidence of an intricate relationship between the two.*

Noticing that animal studies had begun to link stress to infections, a psychologist and immunologist teamed up to study medical students over the course of a decade. They ultimately discovered that every year during their exam period, the students’ immunity decreased. Specifically, during this stressful time, they had fewer of the important immune cells that help fight infections, and the cells they did have weren’t in prime fighting shape.REF#1620

Since then, research into the relationship between stress and immune system function has exploded. Hundreds of studies have been conducted and confirmed stress’ ability to impact the immune system negatively.* An entire field dedicated to investigating the link has been created: psychoneuroimmunology.

The breadth of literature paints a picture of an incredibly complex relationship, describing multiple ways the brain and the immune system communicate. But if we go back to the overviews of the immune system and stress response cycle, we can begin to piece things together for a basic understanding. Their “conversation” is one of the main pathways that allows the stress in your mind to affect your body.

How Do the Brain and Immune System Communicate?

Stress’s impact on immunity has much to do with the hormones mentioned earlier, especially glucocorticoids like cortisol. Hormones released from another part of the brain during fight-or-flight response, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, are also involved in how the brain interacts with the immune system. 

Researchers have discovered that when the stress response is triggered, the burst of cortisol and other hormones (like epinephrine and norepinephrine) initially mobilize the immune system so the body is prepared to handle injury or infection. This is beneficial when there is a threat of physical harm (like the bear in our aforementioned example) and when the period of stress is short-lived; after the threat is gone, all bodily systems return to baseline. REF#1621

But when stress lasts for a significant period—from days to years—the body keeps pumping out stress hormones and the immune system stays in high gear. As time passes, the immune system becomes taxed rather than mobilized. The result is suppressed immune function and weakening of both innate and active immunity. 

What Happens in Your Body During Stress?

In addition to becoming suppressed, other physiological changes happen when stress levels remain too high for too long. When the stress immune response is triggered, proinflammatory cytokines are released into the bloodstream.[5] These cell-signaling compounds help create inflammation, the body’s natural response to infection and injury. These cytokines are also present during long-term stress. REF#1621

Over time, the level of inflammation in the body is higher because of the continual release of inflammatory cytokines. Chronic, low-level inflammation is dangerous to the body because studies repeatedly link it to conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, and even allergies. REF#1622

Meanwhile, the production of lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that helps regulate immunity, decreases as stress levels continue. REF#1621 The short-term effectiveness of higher cortisol levels can be helpful, but the long-term ineffectiveness of continual cortisol levels presents possible homeostatic dysregulation.

In today’s modern world, stressors are always present. When your immune system is continuously “switched on” from everyday stress, it can’t produce adequate amounts of or powerful enough immune cells that create antibodies and otherwise fight antigens, and thus it can’t protect you as it should. Instead, continual high-stress levels can lead to physical health decline. REF#1623

Herbs and Tips for Mind–Body Wellness*

Stress comes from all sides. Social stress, maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and even stress from current events can weigh heavy on the mind and body. 

Of course, when you don’t feel your best, it can add extra stress to your life. Not to mention, when you’re feeling off and stressed out, you may not get the rest you need—and lack of sleep can impact the immune system, too. 

In other words, there are many ways stress and immunity are connected, and it can be easy to get caught up in a vicious circle that leaves you depleted. Dealing with stress requires a multifaceted approach, and a good place to start is through a personal wellness routine.

We recommend creating a mind-body wellness routine that includes herbal stress support and immune support—especially during challenging immune seasons.*

Add In Adaptogens & Other Stress-Supporting Herbs

When it comes to stress support, adaptogens deserve a place in the spotlight.* Adaptogenic herbs get their name from their ability to help you adapt to and find balance amidst life’s challenges.* They read your body’s needs in tense times and can help balance your body’s response cycle so you can cope in a healthy way.*

For everyday support, our best-selling Adrenal Health® Daily Support formula in convenient capsules combines four superstar adaptogens—Rhodiola, Holy Basil (pictured above), Ashwagandha, and Schisandra—to help stabilize the body and maintain well-being.* REF#1624

When you need a little help finding a calm response to life’s trying moments, count on our award-winning Calm A.S.A.P.® formula, a blend of calming herbs including Passionflower, Chamomile, and Vervain. These ingredients can help soothe big feelings, encourage feelings of relaxation, and help you unwind. REF#1625

When you feel run down and fatigued from stress, finding motivation to do even the most basic activities can be hard. Stress Response® contains a blend of soothing Rhodiola, Holy Basil, Ashwagandha, Schisandra, and Oats to help refresh your energy levels and help you cope with day-to-day feelings of stress. REF#1625

Shop all our plant-powered stress-support supplements.*

Embrace Black Elderberry & Other Immune-Supporting Herbs

Black Elderberries have been used for centuries to support immune health.* These small, dark berries contain polyphenols, antioxidants that can support the immune system to help you stay healthy. REF#1626

Antioxidants work by preventing free radicals from harming healthy cells. A balanced amount of antioxidants and free radicals is important to overall wellness. REF#1627

Our Certified Organic Black Elderberry gummies are delicious and convenient—made from real fruit, without any added flavors, colors, or refined sugars. Adult Daily Gummies are designed for everyday, year-round immune support, while our Extra Strength Gummies offer extra support when you need it.*

We also offer Black Elderberry syrups, capsules, powders, and a tonic; browse all Elderberry products.  

When you need support at onset, turn to our Quick Defense® formula with Elderberry, Echinacea, and Andrographis.* These fact-acting capsules support your body’s natural defenses and can be used at home and on the go.* REF#1628

Focus on Self-Care & Make Room for Relaxation

In addition to stress and immune supplements, it’s important to practice self-care in other ways as well. Stay active, get good rest, and enjoy a nutritious diet to stay feeling your best. Consider finding relaxation techniques that work for you and incorporate them into your routine—whether breathing exercises, visualization, or meditation. 

Seek social support from your friends and loved ones or from a therapist. Stress is a part of every life, but it shouldn’t dominate yours.

For more ideas, check out these articles:

REFERENCES:

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  • 2. , "Immune System and Disorders", MedlinePlus, accessed September 29, 2021. https://medlineplus.gov/immunesystemanddisorders.html
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  • 4. Suzanne C. Segerstrom and Gregory E. Miller,, "Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry", Psychological Bulletin 130, no. 4 (2004): 601-630. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361287
  • 5. Jennifer N. Morey et al., "“Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function", Current Opinion in Psychology 5 (October 2015): 13-17,. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465119
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  • 7. Wojcik, Stacy MBA, BSN, RN, and Steven Kang MD, "Stress Can Increase Your Risk for Heart Disease", https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=2171. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=2171
  • 8. Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010)., "Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity.", Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland), 3(1), 188–224. https://doi.org/10.3390/ph3010188
  • 9. Bauer, Brent A. MD, "Herbal Treatment for Anxiety: Is It Effective?", Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, March 2, 2018.. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder/expert-answers/herbal-treatment-for-anxiety/faq-20057945
  • 10. Tiralongo, E., Wee, S. S., & Lea, R. A. (2016)., "Elderberry Supplementation Reduces Cold Duration and Symptoms in Air-Travellers: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial", Nutrients, 8(4), 182.. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8040182
  • 11. Lobo, V., Patil, A., Phatak, A., & Chandra, N. (2010)., "Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health", Pharmacognosy reviews, 4(8), 118–126.. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-7847.70902
  • 12. Karsch-Völk, M., Barrett, B., Kiefer, D., Bauer, R., Ardjomand-Woelkart, K., & Linde, K. (2014)., "Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold", The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 2014(2), CD000530.. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD000530.pub3