Chronic Stress and Inflammation: When Your Immune System Is Your Worst Enemy

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Chronic Stress and Inflammation: When Your Immune System Is Your Worst Enemy
We’ve known for a long time that stress is bad for you. But how exactly does that work?  What role does stress play in illness and how can we learn from it? This article explains the link between chronic stress and inflammation and concludes with advice on how to take extra care of your immune system.

The link between chronic stress and inflammation cannot be ignored, especially when it comes to cases of spontaneous healing. Stories like this come up over and over in medicine, every day. Up to 80 percent of GP visits are related to stress, yet most doctors are trained to focus solely on symptoms of disease and manage them with medication. Multiple studies have shown that in half of all outpatient visits, there is actually no identifiable physical cause.

Chronic stress increases the risk of developing coronary artery disease (CHD), as do a wide variety of other diseases, and there is clear evidence that one emotional event can lead to CHZ. Although the exact biological mechanisms are still under investigation, the road from stress to inflammation to disease is very busy. People recovering from an ‘incurable’ illness seem to have found an exit to get off this highway, turn around and drive in the opposite direction.

The war of attrition of uncontrolled chronic stress

Chronic Stress and Inflammation: When Your Immune System Is Your Worst Enemy

We’re beginning to see that uncontrolled chronic stress depletes your immune system over time, the same way relentless waves wear down a sheer rock face. Anxious thoughts and feelings, the incessant dripping of stress hormones into your blood: these internal sources of inflammation are just as powerful, if not more powerful, than the food you are allergic to or a dangerous poison in your environment.

In numerous studies, the majority of people (80 percent) who developed autoimmune diseases reported “unusual emotional distress” just before the onset of their symptoms.

Stress Hormones and Inflammatory Responses

Like inflammation, stress hormones aren’t bad on their own. In fact, they are necessary for your health and survival. While your body produces a collection of hormones, neurotransmitters, and neuropeptides in response to stress, which works together through a complex chemical reaction, the main stress hormone is cortisol. It’s a staple of the human fight-or-flight response, quickly changing your body’s functions; blood circulation, oxygen, digestion, and so on to ensure you can fight or flee in the face of a threat.

Like an acute inflammatory response, a shot of cortisol in your blood is meant to be a short, rare event; our bodies are not built to fight or flee all the time. So when we get caught up in a chronic fight-or-flight state, which for many people is the reality of life in the modern world, we expose our body to a chemical environment for which it was not built.

Chronic Stress and Inflammation: When Your Immune System Is Your Worst Enemy

Cortisol: Good or Bad?

In healthy amounts, cortisol is really great for us. It helps to regulate blood sugar levels and actually reduces inflammation in the body. The problem arises when cortisol continues to flow through our body for most hours of the day, so it is no longer flexible and only when it is needed. Our tissues become accustomed to this new, constantly high level of cortisol, and the ability to regulate the inflammatory response declines.

The cells of the immune system become desensitized to the regulatory effect of cortisol and it is as if the mute button is pressed: they can no longer hear the instructions. They become confused, disorganized, and overactive, and attack the healthy tissues of the body.

The effect of chronic stress

One very alarming study even found that chronic stress can alter the genes of your immune cells, the original coding that determines a cell’s functioning and behavior. Chronic stress disrupts and rewrites that code like a computer virus that wipes out a hard drive and replaces it with destructive programs.

Researchers evaluated the effect of stress on the immune system, and after long exposure to stressful conditions, four times as many immune cells were circulating in the blood of the stressed group as in the control group. That larger swarm of immune cells contained a dramatically higher portion of ‘pro-inflammatory cells’; their gene expression had been altered by the long exposure to stress and had caused inflammation.

What this essentially means is that these cells were reprogrammed to cause inflammation. With no method to remove this malware and reboot the system, they would continue racing through the body with this mission.

Your immune system: a powerful tool

Chronic Stress and Inflammation: When Your Immune System Is Your Worst Enemy

Your immune system is the most powerful tool in the fight against disease, but like any powerful tool, it must function properly so that it repairs itself and does not cause more damage. No matter what disease you’re dealing with, it’s essential to tackle inflammation so your immune system can do its job of healing in multiple ways. But figuring out what extinguishes the fire of chronic inflammation in your particular situation, or that of your loved one can be challenging at first.

It may seem that everything is fuel for this fire, another spark; what you eat, what toxins or pollution you are exposed to, what you think about, and what you feel. So how do we stop feeding this fire and where do we find the supply of cold water to put it out for good?

The line of communication with your body

To begin with, we need to open lines of communication with our bodies. Those recovering from incurable illnesses often try different things before they become comfortable with the specific lifestyle changes that help them feel better. While it works for some people to quickly start a new diet and stick to it, most people took a trial period to figure out which way to eat. really worked to feel better, more energetic, and happier.

Chronic Stress and Inflammation: When Your Immune System Is Your Worst Enemy

There is no “anti-inflammatory recipe” to follow, although you can start with some common tactics that help most people fight inflammation and restore immune function.

What can you do yourself?

It’s a good idea to start with the basics: start a diet that has a higher nutrient density (high nutrient density diets are generally anti-inflammatory on their own) and avoid processed foods and sugar, as these can trigger the inflammatory response.

Start looking for the causes that lead to stress in you. That’s not always what you think. When do you start to feel stressed or anxious? What are the main moments of tension during your day, when do you feel overloaded, exhausted, or overwhelmed? Sometimes there are clear solutions when you find them: adjusting your routine, asking your partner for more support in some area, or even letting go of responsibilities that are simply too much for you during this time of your life. Other times, a bigger turn in your life is needed to eliminate unnecessary stressors and prioritize your health.

People who were cured of an incurable disease eventually made radical changes in their lives that may have helped turn their immune systems back into an anti-inflammatory mode.

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