Stephanie Ross, PhD, MHD, HT, CNC, FAIS
If you want to avoid stress, you’ve been born in the wrong era. Chronic stress has become epidemic in our society and creates chronic havoc on your body, including the immune system. In fact, according to one meta-analysis involving 300 studies, researchers found that chronic stress can actually damage your immune system.
How does stress get “under the skin” to influence immunity? Immune cells have receptor sites for neurotransmitters and hormones such as norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol, which function to mobilize and transport immune cells, preparing the body to initiate an immune response if needed. Recent research shows that immune cells (e.g., lymphocytes) change their responsiveness to these neurotransmitters and hormones during stress. Immunological responses are biologically and energetically costly, and over time, chronic stress produces negative systemic changes both in immune trafficking and in target tissues.
The connection between stress and immune function may be mediated by specific health behaviors, psychosocial factors, or both. As an example, stress has been linked to neuro-nutrient deficiencies, microbial and mitochondrial imbalances, poor sleep, and loneliness, which have each in turn been linked to increases in pro-inflammatory responses to stress.
Psychological stress has been connected to altered immune functioning in many diseases. Stress induces chronic immune activation and altered health outcomes that resemble those seen in chronic inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Changes in immune function can lead to exacerbated symptoms of both physical and psychological illnesses. In irritable bowel syndrome, sustained cortisol activity during stress is associated with an increase in gastrointestinal symptoms and intestinal permeability. High levels of proinflammatory cytokines resulting from stress have been implicated in schizophrenia. In addition, chronic stress has been shown to enhance risk for developing autoimmune disease. More recently, research has shown that immune system cell (gamma delta T-cells) changes in the gut are linked to stress-induced depression.
Finally, research into the effects of stress on inflammation in clinical populations has demonstrated that stress exposure can increase the likelihood of developing disease, as well as exacerbating preexisting conditions. It is estimated that 95% of all illness is caused or worsened by stress. This fact serves as motivation for making positive lifestyle change that help to reduce stress, restore calm and renew quality of life.
The Fall issue of Contentment magazine focuses on the connection between stress and the immune system and offers outstanding contributions by the following contributing authors.
Cynthia Ackrill, MD, PCC, FAIS is a leader in the field of leveraging stress for optimal productivity, health, and happiness. With a background in primary care and advanced training in applied neuroscience, certification in wellness and leadership coaching, she combines the science of human performance with wisdom, humor, and heart to address the critical relationships between thinking styles, behavior choices, performance capacities, leadership effectiveness, health, joy, and deep career/life satisfaction. She served as editor of the American Institute of Stress Contentment magazine, is on the faculty of multiple leadership/coaching programs, and contributes widely to the media, including Katie Couric, CNN, Today Show and Huffington Post.
In her feature article, “The Immune System-Stress Connection – Use It to Thrive!” Dr. Ackrill reminds us to pay attention to the wisdom of the whole, the importance of connection, communication, and the coordination of all systems, including the social systems and environment, to embrace the impressive powers our incredible minds and bodies to prevent disease, self-heal, and orient to health.
Brandon LaGreca, LAc, MAcOM, is a licensed acupuncturist in the state of Wisconsin and nationally certified in the practice of Oriental medicine. In 2015, Brandon was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He achieved full remission eight months later by following an integrative medicine protocol that included immunotherapy without the use of chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. Brandon is a thought leader in the synthesis of traditional and functional medicine, having written numerous articles on the subject. He is the author of “Cancer and EMF Radiation: How to Protect Yourself From the Silent Carcinogen of Electropollution,” and “Cancer, Stress & Mindset: Focusing the Mind to Empower Healing and Resilience,” He shares his thoughts at Empowered Patient Blog.com.
In his article, Brandon LaGreca, LAc, MAcOM puts forth an important question regarding the connection between cancer and stress, “does stress cause or promote cancer, and if so, can the stress response be influenced to prevent or help treat malignancy? He then proceeds to answer these questions by reviewing the science placed within the context of the many factors that contribute to cancer formation.
Stephanie Maxine Ross PhD, MHD, HT, CNC, FAIS is an internationally recognized leader in Integrative Health. She served as the Founding Director of the Department of Complementary and Integrative Health at Drexel University, a pioneering program that partnered with the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine.
In her article, “Connecting the Gut Microbiota, Stress and the Immune System,” Dr. Ross details the importance of gut microbiota and its role in both health and disease, and highlights its involvement in metabolism, physiology, nutrition, and immune function. She provides an overview of the early life stages of microbiota development where the establishment of a healthy gut microbiota is believed to have profound consequences on the future well-being of the individual.
Marcia Uddoh, MD (candidate), PhD, MPH, MS, MSW, FAIS is a pioneer in stress research and management, specializing in neurology and cognition. Grounded in Christian ethics but welcoming individuals of all faiths, she is a graduate of Dr. Andrew Weil’s esteemed integrative health research internship program at the University of Arizona School of Medicine. Dr. Uddoh has dedicated her career to holistic approaches to stress management.
As the founder of Stress Vitals Institute LLC, she has developed innovative, evidence-based stress assessments and interventions. These are delivered through cutting-edge methods like visualization and heart rate variability (HRV), aiming to empower individuals, especially in low-income communities.
In her article, “Guided Imagery: An Evidence-Based Approach for Cancer Immune Function – Exploring the Potential of the Infinite Holistic Image Model,” Dr. Uddoh captures the benefits attributed to guided imagery for cancer patients and emphasizes the importance of considering the underlying disease process, which provides a better understanding of the mechanics and scientific basis of the process that is crucial to explore guided imagery, and the mechanism of the disease process. Dr. Uddoh details a conceptual model that would offer a more comprehensive overview of the entire narrative.
In closing, it is my hope and prayer that each of us find the strength, resilience and endurance to prevail during these most difficult times. Fill your hearts with love and appreciation for those who surround you, find courage in faith, and channel the worries, stress, and anxiety of uncertainty by being of service to others!
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- Biagi E, Nylund L, Candela M, et al. Through ageing, and beyond: gut microbiota and inflammatory status in seniors and centenarians. PLoS One. 2010;5(5):e10667.