When it comes to immune function, stress can be a big problem. It can reduce the numbers of circulating immune cells, and chronic stress can increase levels of inflammation. It makes us more susceptible to infections or reactivation of dormant viruses like cold sores, and can lead to flare ups of autoimmune issues – as well as mess with our blood sugars, sleep and digestion – and thereby have an indirect effect on immunity.
Actual or perceived stress?
One thing that I find really interesting from numerous studies is that the exposure to stressful events or chronic stressful circumstances (often recorded by questionnaire) is what seems to be associated with reduced immune system function, rather than the amount of stress reported by study participants. Why is that? Well I think it is because for those of us who are chronically stressed, we have normalised it. Though our conscious brains are no longer registering stress, our bodies and more primitive brains still know it is there and are reacting accordingly.
I feel that, at least for many people my age, there is a tendency to push through discomfort and fatigue and low-grade illness, as you just want to get the job done. But I am starting to wonder whether it might (at least sometimes) be better to accept our limitations, to show some vulnerability, to ask for assistance, to put ourselves first and to create some boundaries.
Beliefs can predispose us to stress
One thing that I have recently become more aware of, from listening to the audiobook of ‘The Body Says No’ by Gabor Maté, is how our internalised beliefs can alter how we respond to stressful situations, and could therefore be a risk factor for ill health in the long run.
He asks the question, do you recognise yourself in any of these statements?
- I have to be strong
- It’s not right for me to be angry
- I can handle anything
- I’m not wanted – I’m not lovable
- If I’m angry I will not be lovable
- I’m not wanted unless I do something. I must justify my existence
- I’m responsible for the whole world
- I have to be very ill to deserve being taken care of
If you do get some twinges of recognition – maybe ask yourself why you feel this. Often times these beliefs arose in our childhood and many were created to help us feel safe and secure. BUT – are they actually true? Are they still benefiting us?
Acknowledging the negative
By hiding from yourself that you may be overwhelmed, or in a situation that doesn’t suit you, or that you could need help, or that you have symptoms that need to be taken seriously – are you actually stopping yourself from responding in an appropriate way? And if you are ignoring these signs – and continuing to put yourself in stressful situations – what is that doing to your body?
Are you putting a positive spin on situations that really you would do better to view honestly and then address?
This is not something that I find easy myself. It is definitely a work in progress – and I know that keeping my emotions bottled up around some things has definitely had some practical use in getting through the day to day at times. But this book has highlighted that perhaps there is a flip side to never contemplating the negative, and always being on the go.
Though supporting you to change these internal beliefs is not something that nutritional therapy does directly, I do have a network of practitioners from counsellors to emotional freedom technique professionals who can help you work through this. However, as the links between mind and body are real, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least shine a light on the possibility that your thoughts are affecting your physical health.
I also think that taking steps to connect with your body (the first pillar of my framework for immune harmony) and recognising that your symptoms are giving you clues as to what is going on internally, can help you open yourself up to having a freer dialogue between your body and mind. If you can start to listen and respond to your physical cues, perhaps you can begin to more easily hear and respond to emotional cues as well (which after all also have physical elements to them).
Making time for you
If you think that perhaps you are experiencing overwhelm then why not challenge yourself this week to come up with one or two things that you would like to do – just because you’d enjoy them. They don’t have to be big – maybe they could just be calling a friend you haven’t talked to for a while, or painting your nails, or relaxing in the bath.
Then make an appointment in your diary to do it.
And stick to it – no excuses.
If this means forewarning your family that you are going to be unavailable for half an hour – so be it. You might be surprised how well they coped without you. They may not even realise you were gone!
Though I have spoken mostly about psychological aspects of stress here, physical stress can also activate many of the same stress pathways in the body. More on this another time, but calming down inflammation, balancing blood sugars, normalising blood pressure and identifying and removing immune-triggering foods all help to calm down the stress response. And working on these factors are the bread and butter of nutritional therapists.
If you think that stress could be contributing to your current symptoms of food reactivity or autoimmunity then why not contact me to discuss how nutritional therapy could help.