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How Stress Affects the Immune System

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Whenever I read about how stress affects the body, I think about the original Star Trek battle scenes. Scotty is frantically adjusting equipment while the bomb blasts knock him left and right across the engineering bay; debris is falling all over the place; and Captain Kirk yells, “More power, Scotty!”

Later, after the enemy is conquered, the dust settles and the noise stops. Then Scotty diligently repairs all the battle damage. Scotty's role is very similar to what our immune and endocrine systems do. In times of high stress, all available resources are targeted on immediate action. The fight or flight response to emergency situations includes adrenaline and cortisol, which send more power to the muscles. Cortisol is closely related to cortisone, the powerful anti-inflammatory steroid. Cortisol and cortisone are rapidly inter-converted to maintain a chemical equilibrium. Inflammation is a vital part of fighting infection. But when the Klingons are shooting at you, fighting infection drops to low priority.

Dr. Daniel G. Amen has written several popular books about the relationship between mind and body. He reports that short term stress can be quite healthy, but chronic stress can be devastating. Here's what he recommends to deal with stress:
1. Meditate or pray regularly.
2. Try a yoga class. You can also buy a yoga DVD and practice at home.
3. Learn to delegate.
4. Practice gratitude.
5. Get enough sleep.
6. Get moving with physical activity and exercise.
7. Learn to warm your hands using only your mind. One chapter of the book is devoted to this type of exercise.
8. Practice diaphragmatic breathing. This is a variation of the old standard “take a deep breath”.
9. Listen to soothing music.
10. Surround yourself with the scent of lavender.
11. Rehearse or practice situations that cause stress, so you feel more at ease when you have to deal with the real situation.
12. Live in the present.
13. Practice self-hypnosis.
14. Avoid substances that harm your brain, including caffeine, excessive sugar, alcohol, and nicotine.
15. Laugh more.
16. Seek help for chronic stress.

In my own life, I find that a more powerful remedy for stress is changing my environment. With the Internet, it's easy to find social groups where I can meet people with interests similar to mine. I like going to new places and trying new activities. There are some stress factors that we all have to live with, but many others that we can change.

The body needs a comfortable environment for immune function and tissue repair, just as Scotty needs a peaceful environment to repair the Enterprise. No one functions well in a constant state of combat-level stress.


Daniel G. Amen, MD, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Body”, Harmony Books, 2010.

Linda Fugate is a scientist and writer in Austin, Texas. She has a Ph.D. in Physics and an M.S. in Macromolecular Science and Engineering. Her background includes academic and industrial research in materials science. She currently writes song lyrics and health articles.

Add a Comment2 Comments

I agree that tea has many health benefits, and I drink it every day. Thank you for this comment.

May 7, 2010 - 12:07pm

I want to respond to point 14... "Avoid substances that harm your brain, including caffeine, excessive sugar, alcohol, and nicotine."

It's important to note that not all drinks that contain caffeine "harm your brain"...and in particular, not all of them increase stress--some can actually decrease it. While excessive caffeine can increase stress levels, disrupt sleep, and negatively impact health in a number of ways, there is a growing body of evidence that tea, which contains moderate amounts of caffeine, can actually reduce stress.

I've been researching and gathering information together into my page on the health benefits of tea and I would encourage people to check out that page. Another relevant article that I have been working on is tea and sleep.

A randomized, double-blind study on humans (link is to the abstract--it's not public access; a summary of the article is available to anyone) found that drinking black tea (which often has the worst reputation as being highest in caffeine--which is not necessarily true) actually lowers stress. That study was of men (no women were included), but the point is...universally avoiding caffeine-containing substances isn't necessary, and may not even be the best thing to do.

The key is moderation. Avoid excessive caffeine (just like one should avoid excesses of anything), and if you're going to consume caffeine, do it by drinking unsweetened tea or other healthy sources, rather than soda, energy drinks, or other highly-caffeinated and over-sweetened processed drinks.

May 7, 2010 - 11:44am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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