Post #54 – How to Optimize Your Immune System? – Part IV – by Destressing
In Post #51, I discussed some basic terminology of the immune systems, how immune system works, and what kinds of issues happen when it does not work.
Things that are in our control to enhance our immunity and also so the immune system does not go haywire are the ones that you have heard about gazillions of time by now and are probably tired of hearing about: Nutrition, Exercise and Lifestyle.
In Posts #52 and #53, we discussed how to boost your immune system with nutrition and exercise. In this final post of this series, let’s focus on the last item Lifestyle. Specifically, we will explore what role stress plays in diminishing our immune system and what we can do about it.
Pathways between Stress and the Immune System
We have all heard or intuitively know that when you are stressed you are more susceptible to illness because your immune system is not fully functioning. But how does that really happen?
A meta-analysis report by Suzanne Segerstrom and Gregory Miller pulls together results from 300 different studies and does a beautiful job of explaining our understanding of this biological connection between mental stress and components of our immune system. The following explanation is based on their paper.
There are three different ways stress in the mind “get inside the body” to affect the immune response:
First, sympathetic fibers descend from the brain into both primary (bone marrow and thymus) and secondary (spleen and lymph nodes) lymphoid tissues. These fibers can release a wide variety of substances that influence immune responses by binding to receptors on white blood cells.
Second, the hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal, sympathetic, medullary, ovarian glands respond to stress and secrete the adrenal hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol; the pituitary hormones prolactin and growth hormone; and the brain peptides melatonin, β-endorphin, and enkephalin. These substances bind to specific receptors on white blood cells and have diverse regulatory effects on their distribution and function.
Third, people’s efforts to manage the demands of stressful experience sometimes lead them to engage in behaviors—such as alcohol use or changes in sleeping patterns—that also could modify immune system processes. Thus, behavior represents a potentially important pathway linking stress with the immune system.
Is Stress always bad?
The results of various studies have demonstrated that stressors with the fight-or-flight situations faced by humans’ evolutionary ancestors elicited potentially beneficial changes in the immune system. The more a stressor deviated from those parameters by becoming more chronic, however, the more components of the immune system were affected in a potentially detrimental way.
So, in other words, the way our ancestors’ bodies reacted to an encounter with a saber-tooth tiger was good for our immune system. Stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies. So, the effect on our immune systems is very negative when we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions.
Deep Rest for reversing impact of stress on our immune systems
Deepak Chopra, MD and David Simon, MD in their book Grow Younger, Live Longer: Ten Steps to Reverse Aging, beautifully describe the two antidotes to stress: Restful Awareness and Restful Sleep.
Restful Awareness is a natural mind/body response, as natural as the stress response. The most direct way to experience restful awareness is through meditation. During meditation, breathing slows, blood pressure decreases and stress hormones level off.
In this state while all the metabolic processes slow down, brain stays fully alert and awake. In his book Transcendence: Healing and Transformation Through Transcendental Meditation, Norman Rosenthal, MD describes in great details this fourth state of consciousness many others call Restful Awareness. He also lays out in great deal the research that backs up beneficial effects of Transcendental Meditation.
There are of course other types of meditations and techniques through which you can manage stress. A lot of work has been done and ongoing in the Mindful-based Stress Reduction techniques. These studies describe how performing mindful meditation and living in mindful way reduce conditioned fight-flight response and allows one to make more conscious choices. Such conscious or mindful living thus overrides the biological processes that damage our immune system.
Restful Sleep is equally important in managing stress for optimal immune function. Restful Sleep of minimum six to eight hours is necessary. More recent studies have called out 7.5 hours of daily restful sleep as the optimal.
Restful sleep means that your drift off easily once you turn off the light and sleep soundly through the night. If you have to get up to go to the bathroom during the night, you are able to easily get back to sleep. You will know you have restful sleep if upon awakening you feel energetic, alert and vibrant. If you feel tired and unenthusiastic when you wake up in the morning, you have not had a night of restful sleep.
To get the best sleep usually requires that you develop a regular routine transitioning from activity to sleep. Chopra and Simon describe very good routines that allow you to transition from the daily activity to deep sleep.
To optimize immune systems, stress management can play a critical role. In the 30 years since work in the field of psychoneuroimmunology began, studies have convincingly established that stressful experiences alter features of the immune response as well as make one vulnerable to adverse medical outcomes.
Practicing Restful Awareness through Transcendental Meditation, Mindful Meditation, Mindful living or other technique are critical to minimizing stress. The benefits of these techniques are now well established.
Daily Restful Sleep is also required to manage stress. Practicing daily routines to help transition from daily activity to restful sleep is the best method to achieving daily restful sleep.
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