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How chronic stress affects our immune system.


It's safe to say the most of us have at least felt some underlying stress and anxiety over the past year. But how does this state of mind affect our immune system?

The first response to a stressor is from the HPA axis (Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal axis) which mobilizes to protect an external threat.

When there are no threats the HPA axis is inactive and human growth flourishes. However when the brains hypothalamus perceives a threat, it engages the HPA axis by sending a signal to the pituitary gland (the mastergland) which is responsible for organising 50 trillion cells to deal with the impending threat and launches the bodies organs into action.

The pituitary gland sends a signal to the adrenal glands located on the top of the kidneys informing them of the need to coordinate the bodys fight or flight response.

Once the adrenal alarm is sounded, the stress hormones released into the blood constrict the blood vessels of the digestive tract, forcing the energy-providing blood to nourish the tissues of the arms and legs that enable us to get out of harms way (e.g. the sabre tooth tiger)

Without the bloods nourishment to the visceral organs ( those in the chest and trunk of the body) they cannot function properly.

These organs stop doing their life-sustaining work of digestion, reproduction, absorption, excretion and other functions.

The second protection is that of the immune system which protects us from bacteria and viruses. When the immune system is mobilized it can consume most of the bodies energy supply. That's why we feel so tired when we are sick.

When the HPA axis mobilizes the body for fight or flight response, the adrenal hormones directly repress the action of the immune system to conserve energy reserves. Stress hormones are so succesful at doing this that doctors provide them to patients of transplants so the immune system won't reject the foreign tissues.

This system was not intended for our modern lives. Thousands of years ago humans didn't have money worries, trouble at work,impending doom on the news and definitely didn't have to deal with the stressors of todays world. This was literally for running or fighting your way out of danger at infrequent and brief points in their lives.

Activating the HPA axis also interferes with our abilty to think clearly. Adrenal stress hormones constrict the blood vessels in the forebrain reducing its abilty to make concious, grounded decisions.

Our daily stressors are constantly activating the HPA axis, priming our bodies for action.

This is why stress management is not a luxury but a vital part of our lives.

A way I've been taught to deal with the onset of a stress response is to use box breathing.

This technique can literally flip you out of fight or flight and into rest and digest.

Here's how the technique works

Breath in for 4 seconds (a deep belly breath)

Hold for 4 seconds

Breath out for 4 seconds (exhaling completely)

Repeat for as long as you need. You can feel your body softening and your shoulders dropping. I have used this at numerous ponts in my life, one being driving around the centre of Birmingham on my own when I had no clue of where I was. It enabled me to calm down and make sensible decisions instead of panicking like I usually would.

Obviously this isn't a fix all method but is a great tool to have at your disposal.

Other ways to manage stress could be getting out in nature, avoiding the news, restorative practices like yoga and meditation. But it's what ever works for you and is extremely personal to your preferences and needs.

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