by Jordan Douglas, HHC

You’ve probably heard of the stress-immune connection, and it’s likely been weighing more heavily on your mind for the past seven months. But have you ever been curious about how it works? Stress and pathogens are part of the reality of living in the modern age, and we do derive some benefit from both. However, the dose makes the poison. Short term episodes of acute stress are actually beneficial – our body mounts a protective immune response, increasing immune cell production to protect us against any potential threat. Chronic stress, however, perpetually activates our HPA axis and sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which depletes our immune response and can cause long term changes to our immune system that render us more susceptible to infection and autoimmune disorders.

Let’s take a look at one example. Macrophages are white blood cells that play a critical role in all aspects of the immune response. Macrophages phagocytose (meaning engulf and destroy) foreign invaders; they also enlist the support of other innate immune cells (such as natural killer cells (NKCs)) and stimulate the adaptive immune response by expressing antigens. Basically, they are a major workhorse of our immune system – they’re frontline boots on the ground, gobbling up anything that shouldn’t be there while also radioing back to base to get help, STAT. Macrophages are also highly sensitive to stress.

With chronic stress, increased levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine (hormones released by the activation of the SNS) cause altered macrophage function, meaning fewer NKCs are mobilized to the target area. The cytotoxic effect of NKCs is also perturbed and the NKCs are less able to kill target pathogens. Macrophages then are less able to radio back to base for backup, meaning our adaptive immune response can’t sweep at full force. Combine this with the fact that chronic stress also causes a decrease in circulating T lymphocytes, and we’re faced with a situation where the organism is markedly less able to mobilize a defense response against pathogens.

Take home message:__ Chronic stress negatively impacts the ability of our nervous system and immune system to communicate effectively and of our immune cells to function properly.

So, what can you do? Make sure your foundational bases are well covered (e.g. get plenty of sleep and rest, move your body daily, stay well-hydrated, eat a balanced diet full of real, whole foods especially colorful fruits and vegetables). Herbal medicine has a lot to offer here as well, with many botanicals that support both the nervous and immune systems. Here are 3 of my favorite allies:

  1. Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum): Holy basil, or tulsi, reduces stress and feelings of despair, lifting the mood and instilling feelings of hope and optimism. It balances blood sugar, supports a healthy immune system and keeps you calm, cool and collected. Tulsi makes a lovely tea.
  2. Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum): Reishi boosts the immune system to protect against pathogenic invaders and its rich polysaccharide content ensures optimal function of the immune system. Reishi is also an adaptogen and helps to promote a healthy stress response. Tincture, capsule and powder are all great options.
  3. Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous):_ _Astragalus is an incredibly building, nourishing and revitalizing herb, making it ideal for daily use during the colder months. It enhances both the specific and nonspecific immune responses thereby providing broad-spectrum strength and protection to the immune system. It is also considered a secondary adaptogen and can help support a healthy response to stress. Again, tincture, capsule and powder are all good options.

Have questions on building your foundation, integrating these herbal allies or nourishing your personal stress-immune connection? Email healthcoach@ellwoodthompsons.com to schedule a free 30-minute session!

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