When it comes to preventing or fighting infection, the body relies on the immune system. This network of cells, proteins, tissues and organs works to combat foreign invaders like germs, bacteria, fungi and parasites. A number of things can weaken the immune system including chronic stress. Because causes of stress include work, relationships, health problems and life changes, it is impossible to avoid. Knowing more about the how stress affects the immune system can help.
Research from Ohio State University has shown marked effects of stress on the immune systems of medical students, especially during arduous three-day exams. Effects include weakened infection-fighting T-cells and reduced production of gamma interferon, a protein that helps boost the immune system.
Subsequent research examined the effects of stress-easing interventions on medical students during exams. Results showed that the immune systems of medical students who participated in regular hypnosis and relaxation training were more robust than those of medical students who did not participate in these techniques.
Another study examined men infected with HIV who were asymptomatic at the onset of the study. The research showed that men with higher levels of stress experienced a quicker progression of AIDS than men with lower stress levels. After five years, the chances for developing AIDS were two to three times higher in men with higher-than-normal stress levels.
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In addition to causing physiological changes in the immune system, stress can lead people to engage in behaviors like drinking, smoking and unhealthy eating. When combined with stress, any or all of these behaviors can wreak havoc on the immune system.
Fortunately, there are techniques to lessen the effects of stress on the immune system and other areas of the body. These include:
- Stress-relieving activities like yoga, tai chi, meditation, reading, warm baths, or listening to soft music
- Regular physical exercise
- Bonding with a pet
- Establishing and maintaining close relationships with friends and family
Research clearly shows that chronic stress can impact health by weakening the immune system. Instead of choosing to ignore stress or to eat, drink, or smoke it away, people can take advantage of the tips above to reduce stress levels and keep harmful foreign invaders at bay.