Stress And Immunity
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“You can’t always control what goes on outside, but you can always control what goes on inside.” Wayne Dyer

We are united by our shared experience of grappling with the first pandemic of our lifetime. It is unquestionably stressful and all of us have experienced the emotional and physical symptoms of stress to some degree this year, ranging from anxiety and depression to palpitations, loose bowel movements, and an exacerbation of existing health conditions such as hypertension and autoimmune disease. Indeed, a survey conducted in late April 2020 found that the prevalence of clinically significant levels of mental distress rose from 18.9% in 2018-19 to 27.3% in April 2020, just one month into the UK lockdown.71

You might even be feeling frustrated at being told to ‘calm down’ and ‘relax’! After all, “how can I relax with so much suffering going on in my family and the world right now?” We hear you. We’ve all had those thoughts and feelings at some point this year. However, we’re keen to increase your awareness of just how detrimental stress is to our immune system and crucially, what you can proactively do through nutrition and lifestyle to minimise the impact of stressful situations on your nervous and immune system, and every other body system for that matter!

At the most basic level, mounting a stress response uses up the very nutrients which we require to maintain robust immune defences, notably vitamin C,72,73 zinc,7 and magnesium.74 This is particularly significant given the ongoing discussion within the research community about the importance of these nutrients75,76,77 in light of the current pandemic. Low magnesium can go on to reduce our stress resilience given its importance for ensuring a balanced nervous system,78,79 which can then make us prone to prolonged stress and anxiety which can then further drain our immune system! For instance, if we are depleted in magnesium, our ability to activate vitamin D is reduced80 and low vitamin D status is linked with an increased risk of infection! 52

Prolonged stress can also impair the vital biological process of methylation, not least by depleting the body of the B vitamins (e.g. folate) needed for us to methylate properly! Amongst its many functions, methylation helps us to mount and then neutralise a stress response, and make white blood cells.81 So the more stressed we are, the more we ‘drain’ methylation and reduce its ability to carry out its other functions, such as supporting our immune system!

To make matters worse, prolonged stress is also associated with chronic, low-grade inflammation, which is another well-recognised driver of low immunity.82 Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory hormone, however, when it is chronically overproduced, our cells become less responsive to its anti-inflammatory effects, which then facilitates chronic inflammation. High stress also drives poor or insufficient sleep63 and disruption to our sleep-wake cycle, 83 which is linked to a higher level of inflammation within the body,63 and sleep disruption is particularly common at the moment.

As many of us have transitioned to working from home and seemingly non-stop Zoom or Teams meetings, the majority of us have experienced low levels of daylight exposure alongside very high levels of blue light exposure, not to mention those individuals working in a hospital setting for whom this abnormal light exposure is the norm! This amount of ‘light pollution’ facilitates higher levels of cortisol throughout the day, coupled with lower nocturnal levels of melatonin, which collectively makes us feel stimulated well into the night and drives lighter sleep. This can negatively affect our immunity, as well as mood and energy!84 Strikingly, those with less than 7 hours sleep per night are up to 3x more likely to develop the common cold than those with 8 or more hours sleep,85 and high stress is one of the most common drivers of sleep disruption.

When we feel stressed and sleep badly, we are prone to making less healthy food and lifestyle choices. Our intake of alcohol86 and refined sugar87 tends to increase, both of which are known to impair our immune system. During lockdown, many of us started to drink more alcohol than normal,88 and home-baking soared in popularity, and if this persists, they could weaken your immune defences over the winter months ahead.

Stress can further hamper our immunity via its negative effect on gut health. It can reduce the concentration of secretory IgA in our mucus secretions21 and impair the integrity of the gut wall,11 which otherwise form vital aspects of our first line of defence against pathogens. It can also impair absorption of immune-supportive nutrients by causing diarrhoea!

With so much out of our control at the moment, it is important to focus on what you can control. This includes your self-care, of which stress management is a vital part, not least given the extent to which high stress can drive low immunity! A great strategy is to nourish your nervous system with calming nutrients and botanicals, such as magnesium, L-theanine,89 and lemon balm90 to ensure that it is more resilient in the face of stressors, alongside implementation of our top sleep and stress management tips for more comprehensive support. This will then support your immune system, as well as every other body system!

If you require further advice, please call or email us to talk to one of our Clinical Nutrition Team: 0121 433 8702 and Furthermore, if you are struggling with your mental health at the moment, please reach out to your GP or a mental health charity for additional support.

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71. Pierce M, Hope H, Ford T, et al. Mental health before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: a longitudinal probability sample survey of the UK population. The Lancet Psychiatry. 2020;7(10):883-892. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30308-4

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77. Wallace TC. Combating COVID-19 and Building Immune Resilience: A Potential Role for Magnesium Nutrition? J Am Coll Nutr. Published online 2020:1-9. doi:10.1080/07315724.2020.1785971

78. Held K, Antonijevic IA, Künzel H, et al. Oral Mg2+ supplementation reverses age-related neuroendocrine and sleep EEG changes in humans. Pharmacopsychiatry. 2002;35(4):135-143. doi:10.1055/s-2002-33195

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October 21, 2020
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