The impact of holiday stress and pandemic stress on your immune system and the role of perception.
We are undoubtedly living through a stressful time in history. The coronavirus has proposed new and unforeseen challenges to each and every one of us as individuals and collectively as a nation. Suddenly, our daily routine built on stability and predictability has taken a deep dive into uncharted turbulent seas and we have been left to tread water. Between staying on top of the rapidly evolving CDC guidelines, managing our newly virtual careers, keeping small businesses afloat, online schooling, and trying to stay socially connected at a physical distance, it is no wonder we are more stressed than ever!
On top of all that, the holiday season is upon us which proposes a whole new set of challenges. Stress levels tend to be higher this time of year due to the demanding nature of the holiday season. This increase in stress comes with an increase in the incidence of cold and flu, especially as we transition into the winter months. This is no coincidence because stress suppresses the immune system which increases our susceptibility to cold and flu4.
This year, we must consider the double affliction of holiday stress and pandemic stress on our immune system’s ability to cope with potential invaders like COVID-19. Therefore, in addition to eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and taking immune-boosting supplements like vitamin D, we must make sure we have our stress levels under control this holiday to make sure our immune system is in fighting shape.
To do this, we must first understand how stress suppresses the immune system so we can determine where and how we can intervene to alleviate its effect.
When we perceive emotional or environmental stress, our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis becomes activated in our brain1. Once activated, the brain sends a signal to the hypothalamus to release corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) which signals the pituitary gland to secrete an adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH)1. ACTH signals the adrenal gland to produce and excrete cortisol, the primary stress hormone1,2. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that normal physiologic levels is anti-inflammatory 2. This should be considered a good thing… right? In acute situations, yes! Glucocorticoids are so effective at reducing inflammation that they have been reverse-engineered into pharmaceuticals to be prescribed in conditions caused by inflammation like allergies, asthma, and autoimmunity.
However, in today’s world, we are faced with chronic stress which keeps our cortisol constantly activated, and our immune system chronically suppressed. So, the hormone with the initial intention of protecting us by lowering inflammation is causing more harm than good by chronically suppressing our immune system. The current state of the coronavirus pandemic on top of holiday stress comes at an incredibly high price to our immune system. So, what do we do?
The only way to mitigate activation of the HPA axis is to halt cortisol release is by intervening at the source- taking back control over how we perceive stress and what stressed us out. Of course, this is easier said than done, but research shows that people who are better equipped to handle stress with appropriate coping mechanisms have a heightened ability to fight off viral or bacterial threats to the immune system5.
There are thousands of studies that link mindfulness meditation to lowering stress levels and improved immunity. From a functional medicine perspective, this is an imperative intervention to bolster your immune response3. In addition, speaking to a licensed clinical therapist or making time for stress-lowering activities like biking, journaling, or painting are quintessential to prime your immune system’s defense and should become a non-negotiable part of your lifestyle- especially this year, this time of year, and always.
If you would like more guidance on how to beat the stress of the holidays, please contact Specialized Therapy Associates at (201)-488-6678 to make an appointment. You can also visit us online at Specialized Therapy.
By Taylor Groff, MS Functional Nutritionist
- Katz, D. A., Locke, C., Greco, N., Liu, W., & Tracy, K. A. (2017). Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and depression symptom effects of an arginine vasopressin type 1B receptor antagonist in a one-week randomized Phase 1b trial. Brain and Behavior, (3). https://doi-org.uws.idm.oclc.org/10.1002/brb3.628. Retrieved from: https://uws.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgao&AN=edsgcl.485132319&site=eds-live&scope=site
- Sapolsky, R. M., Romero, L. M., and Munck, A. U. (2000) How Do Glucocorticoids Influence Stress Responses? Integrating Permissive, Suppressive, Stimulatory, and Preparative Actions. Endocrine Reviews 21(1): 55–89.
- Black DS, Slavich GM. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016;1373(1):13-24. doi:10.1111/nyas.12998
- National Institutes of Health (US), National Institute of Mental Health. Fact sheet on stress