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Combat ongoing stress
Benjamin Vnuk for Glamour France

Living a stressed-out life might be linked to coming down with the common cold. Here’s what you can do to combat it.

For many of us, stress is just a part of life. It can last from a few minutes to a few hours and for some of us, it can be persistent and ongoing. And whilst stress can sometimes be a motivational tool that helps you rise above your circumstances, other times, it’s just flat out overwhelming. When stress becomes chronic, it can take a toll on your health.

As the effects of stress add up over time, even general day-to-day stress could lead to more complicated health issues over time. This means that it’s important to be aware of the stresses that are present in our lives, how they add up and how we might go about combatting them.

What does stress do to our immunity?

Ongoing stress makes us more susceptible to contracting illnesses as the brain sends defence signals to the endocrine system, which then releases hormones that get us ready for a ‘fight or flight’ situation whilst depressing our immunity.

Research shows that stress may be responsible for up to 90% of all illnesses and diseases, including cancer and heart disease. This is due to its triggering of chemical reactions that flood the body with cortisol that decreases your count of lymphocytes (white blood cells) and NK cells (cancer killing cells), which increases tumour development and increases the rate of tissue damage.

The lower your lymphocyte level, the more at risk you are for contracting colds, viruses, bugs and flu.

In short bursts, cortisol can boost your immunity by lifting inflammation, however if the stress is ongoing, the opposite effect occurs as your body gets accustomed to having too much cortisol in the blood, which allows inflammation to become more pervasive.

High stress levels and elevated cortisol is also associated with depression and anxiety, which both can lead to higher levels of inflammation in the body.

In the long term, high levels of inflammation caused by stress will result in an over-worked, sluggish immune system that can’t adequately protect you from the risks of our modern lifestyles.

The relationship between stress and lowered immunity leading to illness is by no means straightforward, but research is increasingly showing that there are strong links. As the endocrine and immune systems are interconnected, physical or emotional stress can cause damage to both systems.

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How can we relieve stress before it compromises our immunity?

Mind-body stress relief techniques that can help include relaxation exercises such as meditation, journaling and art therapy, along with behaviour modification exercises such as working with a therapist and positive thinking.

Recent mental health research has shown that our mood and attitude have a great impact on our immune system. When we’re optimistic, our immune systems function well and when we’re negative, our immune systems don’t run at their best.

Exercise is also well known for improving your immune system whilst releasing feel-good endorphins that can help combat stress. Research out of the Appalachian State University Human Performance Lab indicates that those who exercise for 30 to 45 minutes each day experience a 40-50% reduction in the number of days that they get sick.

How can we tell if our immunity needs a boost?

‘Low immunity’ describes an under-active immune system that isn’t performing at its best and is not adequately fending off illness and infection.

If you find yourself catching colds easily and frequently (defined by doctors as more than two colds per year), suffer from chronic infections, get frequent cold sores or experience swelling and pain in your lymph glands, these are all signs that your immunity might be low.

Recurrent infections, even the most minor of colds, only occur when the immune system is weakened and a vicious cycle is set up, making it very difficult to overcome the tendency towards infection.

The vicious cycle of lowered immunity looks like this:

The immune system is weakened, then infection occurs, then infection further damages the immune system, then the immune system is further susceptible to attack.

Even if we feel that our immunity might not be compromised, making a dedicated effort to support our immune system when we’re anticipating times of stress (such as when work kicks up a notch, before travelling or during the transition of seasons where cold are more common) can help give our immune system the support it needs to protect us.

And anything that could mean less time spent battling with the common cold is a win in our eyes.