How stress can affect the immune system – and what to do about it

Stress can wreak havoc all over the body – more so than many of us realise.

One of the places that can take a hit in times of stress is the immune system, a vital network of organs that works to keep us well.

Lesley White, pharmacist at Boots, says: ‘It is important to note that when stress becomes chronic or long term it can have negative health effects.

‘When we’re stressed our body produces the stress hormone cortisol, which can suppress how effective the immune system is.

‘This means that the immune system’s ability to do its job can become reduced.

‘In instances of short term suppression of the immune system, which may be caused by everyday stress, this isn’t likely to be harmful, however, long term suppression, which can be caused by long term stress, means that the body can become more vulnerable to infection and disease.

‘Someone with long term or chronic stress may notice that they are experiencing minor illnesses like coughs and colds more than normal.

‘Long term stress may also impact mental health and cardiovascular health.’

When we’re stressed, we’re more likely to seek out unhealthy coping mechanisms too, such as drinking and smoking – this doesn’t help issues with the immune system.

So if stress has both a direct and indirect impact on our immune system, what can we do?

How to limit stress

Lesley says: ‘Everyday stress is something we’ll all feel at some point in our lives and, in most cases, these are frustrations which are often temporary, so it is unlikely to impact negatively on your overall health and wellbeing.

‘When we experience everyday stress, it’s helpful to try and manage this with healthy coping methods, including being active, eating a healthy diet and limiting alcohol and caffeine intake.’

These simple things can help to boost the immune system and your general health when stress is causing havoc.

Taking some positive steps to help manage daily stress such as mindfulness and practicing self care can help.

She adds: ‘People also find relaxing for at least half an hour each night, whether that’s reading your favourite book in the bath, watching television or listening to music helpful.

‘If you’re experiencing stress that is affecting your everyday life, it’s important to speak to your GP for advice and support.’

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