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How Stress Could Be Affecting Your Immune System

There are many different ways in which we can ‘stress’ the body and, in particular, our immune system. We can stress it with extreme exercise, we can expose it to severe heat. One area that has long been under-appreciated though, is how psychological stress can challenge the immune system. While we might think of this type of stress as just something that affects only our minds, it has a very consistent physiological effect in the body. Blood pressure and heart rate can increase. We release inflammatory proteins into the bloodstream. It is important to appreciate though, that the evolution of this stress response was not designed to kill us, but to help us survive. Without a fight-or-flight stress response, a lion has no chance of catching a gazelle, just as the gazelle has no chance of escape. During short-term stress, multiple physiological systems are activated to enable survival.

Why then might stress begin to have negative effects within the body then?

Immune Supporting Supplements

- Vitamin C
- Probiotics
- Vitamin D
- Multivitamins & Mineral

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It’s the length that counts

The main distinguishing characteristic of stress is the duration of the biological effects of stress. Short-term stress lasts for a period of minutes to hours, while chronic stress can persist for several hours per day for weeks or months. The ability of humans to generate and experience psychological stressors in the absence of external stressors can result in long-term activation of the physiological stress response that often has deleterious effects. This is where we can start to see individual differences. Yes, we would probably all enter fight or flight mode if faced with a life-threatening foe. But there is a huge range of responses when it comes to less obvious perceived stress. Those deadlines at work, money issues, even being stuck indoors for a prolonged period of time. There are significant individual differences in stress perception, processing, appraisal, and coping (1).

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The economic cost to industry arising from work-related stress in the USA alone is thought to be more than $300 billion (2)

While there are other lifestyle factors to consider, it is then important to consider what has been termed ‘psychological buffers’ in order to help stay on the good side of stress (1). Do you practice and harbour feelings of compassion and gratitude? How good is your social support? Do you think about how you appraise and cope with different perceived stressors?

We have previously discussed some of these on the Nutrition, Health and Performance podcast. Make sure to check our interviews with Karl Morris and Ben Fanning


1 - Dhabhar, F. S. (2014). Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Immunologic research, 58(2-3), 193-210

2 - American Psychological Association Practice Organization. Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program Fact Sheet: By The Numbers; 2010. p. 1–15.