The immune system is one of the most important functions of the human body. Your immune system keeps you healthy, protects you against disease, and fights off harmful bacteria that enter the body. Without your immune system, you’d be vulnerable to a whole host of diseases from infections, airborne pathogens, and the bacteria that we’re exposed to every day. But your disease-fighting system is susceptible to disease itself–and when your immune system isn’t functioning, it makes it that much easier for harmful bacteria to attack! But what causes harm to our natural defenses, and what can we do to prevent it?
One of the most overlooked causes of immune system disease is stress. We all know that stress causes harm to the mind and body, resulting in headaches, muscle pain, fatigue, and loss of appetite, among other symptoms. But many people are unaware that stress also causes damage to the inner workings of our system. A certain level of stress is completely normal and even healthy–the stress we feel before taking a test, for instance, or the anxiety before giving a presentation in front of a large crowd. Stress pushes us to work harder and improve our performance.
But prolonged periods of stress weaken the immune system, making us more vulnerable to disease. When we’re stressed, our body switches on the “fight-or-flight” response, raising adrenaline and cortisol levels and preparing us for a perceived threat. We tense up, become more alert, and may feel stressed or anxious. Typically, this reaction dies down after the threat has passed. But when we’re stressed for long periods of time, our body stays in fight-or-flight mode, putting a strain on our system. This strain weakens our natural processes, including our immune system. This makes us more susceptible to sickness and disease. It’s no wonder that stressed people are more likely to fall ill!
So how do we protect our immune system? None of us will ever completely avoid stress–it’s part of life. But we can learn to manage stress in healthy ways that don’t compromise our natural defenses. If possible, try stepping back and taking a break from the situation. Put the situation in perspective–is this going to be important in ten years? Six months? An hour? Stay organized and informed of your responsibilities. Some people might benefit from talking to a counselor to help them manage their stress. Meditation and deep-breathing exercises can also do wonders for your mental health. Learning to manage stress won’t only help your immune system–it’ll give you a better outlook and make you more well-prepared to deal with life’s challenges.