This month on the blog, we’re talking about colds, the flu, and other viral and bacterial infections. I’ve also been sharing resources to help you strengthen your immune system so if you end up with an infection, you can recover faster.
So far, I’ve shared information about supplements and alternative therapies that can be helpful for recovery and prevention, and this week, I want to talk about the (not-so) secret way that stress and mindset affect your immune system and your ability to recover from illness.
I know it may not immediately seem connected, but trust me, there’s a link!
From work to parenting, finances, and maintaining our health, there’s no doubt that most of us live very stressful lives. No matter what we do, stress can never be completely avoided. That said, it has the ability to severely impact the health of our immune system and ability to recover from infections and other illnesses.
I know, it feels like a catch-22: stress is ever-present and unavoidable, but its presence can adversely affect our health.
So what can you do – how do you keep yourself well despite modern-day stress?
When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands secrete cortisol and the sympathetic aspect of your nervous system turns on; the part of your nervous system responsible for fight, flight, or freeze. Hormones, like adrenaline and epinephrine, are also secreted.
The production of these stress hormones can weaken the lining of the gut over time, and since at least 70% of your immune system is in your gut, a weakness in one creates a weakness in the other.
Research has shown, however, that’s it’s not just stress that can deplete the gut and immune system. Our perception of the stress and the events contributing to it also have an effect.
So you can experience stress, but if you can maintain a positive or hopeful outlook about your situation, the stress you are experiencing may not affect your body as severely.
I see this often with my patients – the ones who make a conscious effort to think positively about their body and their illness tend to recover from colds, the flu, and other infections faster if they get sick at all.
The New England Journal of Medicine began studying this phenomenon in the 1990s. They looked at the correlation between how we perceive stress and its effect on the development of acute infections. Their results mirror the observations I’ve made of my own patients: maintaining positive emotions, positive beliefs, and a positive mindset during times of stress helps you to have a greater resistance to bacterial and viral infections, like a cold or the flu.
It has also been shown that the production of interleukin-6, an immune protein that is produced in the body wherever there is inflammation, is linked to our emotional state. More specifically, it is elevated in the presence of negative emotions in some individuals. This elevation can prolong recovery from infections and other illnesses.
A positive mental state really does make a difference.
It’s easy to allow ourselves to get caught up in stressful moments, let negative thoughts take over, and treat our bodies poorly because they don’t seem to be cooperating. Allowing this to happen, however, isn’t helpful.
Instead of beating yourself up during times of illness, understand that your body is simply doing its job – letting you know that the stress is too much and it’s time for rest and nourishment,
Give yourself permission to slow down, breathe, meditate, and rest. This is the perfect time to engage fully in your spiritual practice.
Be grateful to your body for reminding you to rest and take good care, and remind yourself of the best possible outcome: a healthy body and speedy recovery.
I say this often, but it’s important and relevant here: good health is more than eating healthy foods and taking the right supplements, nourishing your emotional and spiritual health is just as important.