Six Steps to Beat Stress and Boost Immunity

Scientists have known for years that major and minor life stresses interfere with immune function and contribute to disease.
01/31/2012 02:24pm ET | Updated April 1, 2012
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Has winter blindsided you with a cold or flu?

Did holiday shopping and spending leave you stressed out?

Have chilly days and nights kept you stuck indoors?

If it feels like the perfect storm has hit your immune system this time of year, you're right.

So now is a perfect time to see how stress impacts immunity and find out what to do about it.

Stress and Immunity

Scientists have known for years that major and minor life stresses interfere with immune function and contribute to disease. Stressful life events increase your susceptibility to several types of infections, from the common cold to tuberculosis and to auto-immune disorders, in which your body's immune system attacks its own cells.

A study of medical students found that taking final exams produced a measurable decline in the type of immune function that protects against viral infections.

The death of a spouse or a child causes a profound drop in immune function, which may explain why the death rate among men soars by almost 40 percent during the six-month period after losing a wife.

Although you may not be able to control all the stressors in your life, there are many steps you can take to build your immune resistance in the face of stress.

Immune Boosters

1) Clear Thinking

The emotional impact of a stressful event is determined by the way you think about it. There is a tendency to overreact to relatively small setbacks, giving them more weight than they deserve.

"Cognitive restructuring" is the name given to a psychological strategy that allows us to reevaluate our stressors and gain perspective. Cognitive restructuring forms the psychological basis for all the great religions and is central to the philosophy of Buddhism.

Non-religious methods have been developed and popularized by psychologist Albert Ellis (Rational Emotive Therapy) and psychiatrist Aaron Beck (Cognitive Behavior Therapy).

2) Social Networks

Isolation can be a killer, increasing the death rate from infection, heart disease and cancer. Involvement with others builds immunity.

A California research team studied people suffering from melanoma, a highly malignant form of skin cancer. They found that involvement in a cancer support group improved survival and increased the activity of a group of white blood cells called natural killer cells, which are an important component of the body's defense against cancer.

Harvard researchers found that students could improve immune function simply by watching a video about Mother Theresa's compassionate work among the poor of Calcutta.

3) Exercise

Exercise of modest intensity, like brisk walking 30 minutes a day, appears to improve immune function. Both your level of activity and your general level of fitness are important.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that a quarter million deaths per year in the U.S. can be prevented by regular physical activity at this level of intensity.

4) Sleep

Your sleep is an active time during which your body restores itself. Sleep deprivation of experimental animals increases susceptibility to viral and bacterial infection, and, in humans, insomnia reduces natural killer cell activity. Healthy young men awakened from sleep between 3 and 7 a.m. show a 30 percent dip in natural killer activity the next morning.

The natural sleep requirement of adults varies from as little as six to as much as 10 hours per day, with most people needing seven to nine hours, preferably without interruption. Daytime relaxation also has important health benefits. A period of quiet meditation each day may lower blood pressure, relieve anxiety, improve nighttime sleep and decrease the discomfort of chronic headache and other painful conditions.

5) Nutrition

The leading cause of immune deficiency, worldwide and within the U.S., is poor nutrition. Study after study has found that vitamin and mineral supplements improve immune function among the elderly and among children with recurrent infections. The specific nutrients with the most profound effects are the omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs), which are found in flax seed and in fish, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin B6, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, selenium and iron.

Restricting unhealthy dietary fat is also important for building resistance. The activity of natural killer cells is enhanced by low fat diets and diminished by high fat diets.

6) Herbs

If you are highly stressed and prone to developing repeated infections, immune-stimulating herbs may be a helpful addition to a nutritious diet. These include Echinacea species (a native American herb), and Astragalus root (a component of traditional Chinese medicines.

Learn More: Herb Guide.

Clear thinking, supportive social relationships, moderate exercise, adequate sleep and immune-boosting nutrients can keep you from becoming a victim of stress.

Now I'd like to hear from you:

Are you stressed out?

Notice any impact on your immunity?

Have you tried anything that helps?

Please let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below.

Best Health,

Leo Galland, MD

Important: Share the health with your friends and family by forwarding this article to them and sharing on Facebook.

Leo Galland, MD is a board-certified internist, author and internationally recognized leader in integrated medicine. Dr. Galland is the founder of Pill Advised, a web application for learning about medications, supplements and food. Sign up for FREE to discover how your medications and vitamins interact. Watch his videos on YouTube and join the Pill Advised Facebook page.

References and Further Reading

Power Healing: Use the New Integrated Medicine to Cure Yourself. Leo Galland, 384 pages, Random House, (June 1, 1998)

The Fat Resistance Diet Leo Galland, M.D. ( 2005)

This information is provided for general educational purposes only and is not intended to constitute (i) medical advice or counseling, (ii) the practice of medicine or the provision of health care diagnosis or treatment, (iii) or the creation of a physician -- patient relationship. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem, contact your doctor promptly.

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