Until you start studying physiology, it can be difficult to see how organ systems interact with each other. In the western mindset, we tend to separate things as if nothing is interconnected.
Have a headache or fever? Take Tylenol or Motrin.
Have an ulcer or GERD? Take antacids.
Anxiety? Take a Xanax.
This non-holistic view of the body has been so drilled into us, that it can be extremely difficult to reframe our thinking!
But that’s exactly what I want you to do. And I want you to begin to understand that immunity is far more than simply taking elderberry syrup or fire cider. I’m not saying those can’t be part of your strategy, but they shouldn’t be the only tools in your toolbox: Lifestyle, stress management, diet, herbs and adaptogens all have a part to play in building and maintaining a robust and resilient immune system.
So let’s get to the meat here
First, not all stress is bad. We need stress to get things done, and as long as it isn’t prolonged, it isn’t a problem at all. But severe, prolonged stress (days, weeks, months) can become a serious detriment to our immune system and overall health.
When we experience stress, our body goes into the fight or flight response, which creates changes in your brain and in all cells throughout your body. I’m sure you’ve heard of the HPA axis. This stands for hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal cascade. This is how the HPA axis works in a nutshell:
- hypothalamus in the brain signals the pituitary gland (corticotropin releasing hormone)
- pituitary gland releases ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) to signal the adrenal glands
- adrenal glands, specifically the cortex (outer layer of adrenal glands) releases cortisol, along with other hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline into the bloodstream
- cortisol travels to all the cells of the body to elicit a response
Cortisol signals the body to fire up and get ready for an emergency. It signals a release of glucose into the bloodstream as a source of energy, and you’ll experience things like increased heart rate, faster/more shallow breathing and increased sensitivity to environmental goings-on.
Stress also causes a disruption in digestion, including damaging your good gut bacteria, which plays a big role in immunity. Stress can lead to insulin resistance and cause weight gain, especially around the middle. The presence of cortisol also reduces your immune response, making you more susceptible to infections and slowing down healing time.
You can see how prolonged stress can have a detrimental effect on the entire body. Unfortunately, we live in a very stress-laden world, and now – thanks to COVID-19 hitting the world, job loss, kids home from school, the need to limit social outings and general uncertainty – we’re experiencing stress in an even greater amount.
Stay tuned for more on how to decrease stress and tools to build your immune system over the next few posts. ??