Stress and the immune system
Stress is all around us. For some people, it’s a stimulant, but for others, it’s a heavy burden. We’ve all heard the warnings before. Watch out for stress! It’s bad for you. But that’s chronic stress, which can last days, weeks or even months. That type of stress hits you hard in numerous ways, including suppressing your immune system. However, short-term stress lasting minutes or hours is a different story, especially when it comes to the immune system. A Stanford University School of Medicine study found that what we refer to as the “fight-or-flight” response, a physiological reaction that occurs when we are in the presence of something that is mentally or physically terrifying boosts the immune system – at least in rats. And that’s good news!
A psychophysiological stress response is one of nature’s fundamental survival mechanisms. We need a robust immune system to heal wounds, prevent or fight infection. Picture an animal that has escaped an attacker but suffered some injuries. It would be useless to escape the attack only to die of infection later. Scientists believe this is where a ramped-up immune system fueled by the “fight-or-flight” syndrome mobilizes critical body resources to help heal the wounds.
The immune system
Your immune system consists of your cells, proteins, organs and tissues, according to a review published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology. Its purpose is to prevent or limit infection, disease and damage in our bodies. Not only does it have the ability to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy cells, but it can also “identify foreign substances and infectious microbes, including bacteria and viruses,” according to the National Institutes of Health. When the immune system detects danger, it initiates a response to eliminate that danger.
Help us, not kill us
Firdaus Dhabhar, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a member of the Stanford Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection, published a study that showed that “the massive redistribution of immune cells throughout the body was orchestrated by three hormones released by the adrenal glands, in different amounts and at different times, in response to the stress-inducing event. These hormones are the brain’s call-to-arms to the rest of the body,” according to Dhabhar, who believes that Mother Nature gave us this stress response to help us, not kill us.
You can’t keep your immune system on high alert in the “red zone” at all times. That’s where the brain comes into play. It’s the best organ to detect an approaching challenge and direct the release of the stress hormones norepinephrine, epinephrine and corticosterone (the equivalent of cortisol in humans). These stress hormones enable the animals to run faster, jump higher, bite harder and unleash the immune troops to prepare for the coming challenge. All animals experience this. Humans also experience a similar response. Dhabhar noticed this stress response in babies who wailed when they got a shot.
When Dhabhar studied knee surgery patients, he found that the “anxiety of their impending operations boosted the number of immune cells circulating in their blood,” which convinced him that stress, as bad-mouthed as it often is, can in some situations actually improve health. Not all the knee-surgery patients’ immune systems responded equally when anticipating the operation. For some people, the number of immune cells in their bloodstream peaked before the procedure and slowly decreased. Other patients, however, displayed levels of immune cells that all. Unsurprisingly, the patients with adaptive immune responses recovered from surgery faster.
More research required
Science has barely scratched the surface of this critical response mechanism, and much more research will be required to find out why these individual differences occur But, one thing is sure. It’s okay to feel stressed when we get a shot, which is a good thing given the pandemic we’ve suffered through for the last two years. The researchers believe their findings might someday be able to “manipulate stress-hormone levels to improve patients’ responses to vaccines or recovery from surgery or wounds.”