The Link Between Stress, Inflammation & Immunity
Ever wondered why you tend to break out in spots whenever you’re stressed? Or why you feel depressed when you come down with a cold (or vice versa)? And what’s the deal with all those nutritional supplements that are supposed to help with just about everything?
The answer isn’t really that complicated. We have a number of different body systems, and they are all connected - so if one goes down, it effects your balance in other areas, causing more problems elsewhere, and so on.
One such relationship that arguably effects peoples day-to-day lives more than any other is the link between stress, inflammation and immunity.
When it rains, it pours
Some stress is useful. It can really make you focus when you need to and is certainly a great motivator. However too much stress, particularly on a regular basis, is proven to adversely affect the immune system.
For instance, decades ago scientists found students produce fewer infection-fighting cells – important components of the immune system – during exam periods. Since then, further research has uncovered a wealth of additional evidence linking high levels of stress with poor immunity.
The reason for this link is inflammation. Your body responds to stress by producing stress hormones such as cortisol which, under normal conditions, actually helps to control inflammation. However, when your body produces too much cortisol then too much inflammation occurs.
Some inflammation is necessary of course, such as that triggered by your immune system to help protect your body against infections, or when you have an injury such as a sprain or a bad cut. It's inflammation that causes all that swelling, heat, pain and redness - and it's a crucial part of the healing process.
However too much inflammation knocks all sorts of systems out of synch - potentially causing all sorts of symptoms including tiredness, aches, pains, low mood, gastric problems, coughs and colds. A recent study found that depression symptoms are associated with a 30% increase of inflammation in the brain, on average.
Worse still, is the fact that to cope with these and other inflammation-related symptoms can make you feel even more stressed. More stress, in turn, plays havoc with your immune system, causing more inflammation. And round and round you go in a constant vicious loop; the circle of strife.
Did you know? Due to it's link with immunity, stress can make life even more miserable for people with allergies, say experts. In tests, people with hayfever and other allergies experienced worse symptoms the day after a stressful event.
Stress and your skin
Another very visible example of the stress-immunity-inflammation loop many of us can relate to, is the effect it can have on our skin. Anyone who has or has ever had acne- prone skin knows how stressful it can be. But while acne triggers stress, so stress triggers acne.
When you’re stressed or depressed, the stress hormones your body produces can have an effect on your sebaceous glands, which can cause spots and make an existing outbreak worse. Scientists believe this is the case, with a study published in Dermatology Times suggesting that – in some people, at least – the higher your stress levels, the worse your acne will be.
Inflammation plays a role in acne too, as anyone who’s ever had a red, angry, painful zit will know only too well. Some scientists believe acne is actually an inflammatory disease, and that inflammation is involved in the early development – not just the late stages – of spots forming.
So, does stress cause spots or do spots cause stress? The answer is probably both, and either way it doesn't really help. This is simply another example of how the direct links between these apparently separate body processes can conspire to send us into a downward spiral. So the key question is; how do we get out?
Did you know? When you have a cold, your symptoms aren’t actually caused by the virus. Instead they are a side effect of the inflammatory response triggered by your immune system in response to the virus.
Adapt to survive
Most of us have experienced this stress-immunity-inflammation loop to some degree at some point. You know; when everything seems to go from bad to worse at the same time: we get stressed, we get sick, then we get even more stressed because we’re sick, which makes us even more poorly, and so on.
If you have ever searched for a supplement to help, it’s highly likely you’ve come across adaptogens. Adaptogens are a hot topic these days and the subject of many a wellness blog – though the truth is they’ve been around for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine traditions.
Adaptogens are plant-based remedies, mostly taken as supplements or teas. There are thought to be at least 70 types of adaptogen, including ashwagandha, rhodiola, maca root, turmeric, holy basil and Asian and Siberian ginseng. These and many others are believed to have a number of health benefits, the most well-known of which is the ability to help the body cope with stress.
While there’s little hard evidence to explain how or if they work, experts who recommend adaptogens say they interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathoadrenal system, both of which are involved with the body’s stress response.
This interaction is thought to help control of the release of cortisol, helping your body not to become flooded with it whenever you find yourself in a stressful situation. Many adaptogens are also thought to reduce inflammation – which makes you think it must have something to do with how they help with stress. However, because of the multiple active ingredients within these natural remedies, it may be sometime before scientists can explain exactly what is happening on a bio-chemical level - until then we can only observe.
Did you now? Most of the studies to date have used isolated human or animal cells to test how effective adaptogens are. But that will change as more researchers look further into adaptogens, with human trials likely on the horizon.
Can adaptogens break me out of the loop?
The fact that they have a long history of use in non-Western medical systems suggests many people over the centuries have found adaptogens effective. They are also generally considered very safe, so if you are suffering with stress, anxiety, inflammation or low-immunity and you need some help breaking out of the loop then we'd suggest they might be worth a try.
Just remember; whenever you are thinking about taking any new supplement or medicine, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor first, especially if you have an existing medical condition or are taking any prescription or over-the-counter medicines
In general, the best way to be robust and help your body deal well with stress, keep control of inflammation and keep a high resistance to illness is to make sure your diet is as healthy and well balanced as it can be. But if you’d like to find out which nutrients are worth keeping a closer eye on if you suffer with any stress-related issues, please check out VitaBright’s Stress & Anxiety Supplements for some top tips and advice.
Ultimately however, managing your intake of nutrients or medicating to manage stress can only go so far. Unless you deal with the root cause of your anxiety, then unfortunately you'll probably find yourself back where you started at some point. So whether it's a case of adjusting your lifestyle or changing your mindset, at the end of the day the only thing that can adapt to fix the problem permanently, is you. 😉