In part 1 of this series on immune health, we talked about how you can improve your immune system by optimizing gut function. The approach I implement with my clients is known as the 3 Rs; reduce, replace and restore. Reduce those things known to irritate and damage the gut, replace the enzymes necessary for healthy gut function and finally restore the integrity of the gut. In part 2 we are going to discuss another system that is closely connected to the immune system…the nervous system.
You’ve probably experienced the effect of the nervous system on your immune system if you’re ever gotten sick after a highly stressful time. Maybe every January after the holiday season, you get a cold. Or maybe you notice you get sick after a couple of nights of missed sleep preparing for an exam or presentation. Well these are not coincidences. There is mounting evidence that the immune system and the nervous system are interconnected;1 and one of the biggest impacts on the nervous system and corresponding immune system is excess stress and lack of sleep.
The nervous system and immune system used to be thought of as separate. It was known that the immune system protects against bacteria, viruses and other foreign matter while the brain does the thinking, processing, creating. However, it seems to be more complex than that. There are two main mechanisms in which the nervous system communicates with the immune system:
There are nerves that branch from the brain down the spine to the rest of the body. This is called the autonomic nervous system. This system is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS gets turned on during emergencies, often called the “fight or flight” system, as it is responsible for the release of stress hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline. The PNS opposes the SNS and is responsible for “rest and digest” activities.
When you think of hormones, you may think of thyroid hormones, stress hormones or sex hormones that are released from their corresponding body glands, thyroid, adrenal, ovaries, testes, respectively. But, what you may not realize it is the brain controls the release or inhibition of these hormones.
One of the main ways the nervous system affects the immune system is via the stress response. Interestingly, the connection between stress and the immune system is fairly recent. The first evidence of the negative effects of stress on the immune system was only 60 years ago.2
Since then, we have learned that stress disrupts a variety of immune functions. It appears that initially the onset of a stressor enhances the immune system, increasing immune cells and their responsiveness. However, if this stressor continues, say after an hour, the immune system is likely suppressed.3 Stress hormones released from adrenal glands help us respond to stress, but they also decrease the number and strength of immune cells, including antibodies and lymphocytes.
The link between stress and the immune system is based on the assumption that the following steps occur.2
- Exposure to stress varies in pattern and frequency from person to person.
- Variations decide magnitude and frequency with which we turn on the stress-response.
- Magnitude and frequency of stress response regulates immune function.
- Immune function determines which diseases we get and how readily we resist them.
These four steps are complex and there are often caveats, but this is a general idea of the link between stress and immune function. Bottom line is our body, including the immune system, is designed to react to acute stress, but when this stress becomes chronic, day in and day out, the immune system is negatively affected.
What to Do
Hopefully you now have a brief understanding of this complex subject. So, now the question becomes what can we do to successfully cope with stress so that it doesn’t create negative impacts on the immune system as mentioned above?
Lack of sleep profoundly inhibits the immune system. Even a modest loss of sleep weakens the immune system’s response to disease and injury. In fact, fewer than six hours of sleep/day is associated with low-grade chronic inflammation.4 Some tips to improve sleep include:
Create an ideal environment for sleep
- Little to no light at night. Eliminate computer, digital alarm clock, other digital devices that emit light, night-light, outside light.
- Exposure to light during the day. Our bodies follow light rhythms, so just as important as it is to create a dark nighttime environment, it is important to be exposed to light, preferably sunlight in the day.
- Little to no noise.
- Cool temperature. Ideal temperature for sleeping is 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Create an ideal body for sleep
- Try not to be too full or too hungry when you go to bed.
- Avoid alcohol before bed.
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening.
- Take a hot bath with Epsom salt, which contains the relaxant mineral, magnesium.
- Have a cup of organic hot tea that contains relaxant herbs, such as Chamomile and valerian.
- Consider testing cortisol levels if you are having troubles falling or staying asleep.
Create an ideal mind for sleep
- Create a bedtime routine and try to make it the same every night.
- Keep a journal by your bed. This is especially helpful if you struggle with racing thoughts or can’t sleep because you have too much on your mind. You can even jot down a few things in the middle of the night if that helps.
Create an ideal schedule for sleep
- Restructure/prioritize your schedule to allow you to go to be sleeping between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am.
- Try to be sleeping between 10 pm and 6 am. From 11 pm-3 pm deep, non-REM sleep naturally occurs, and between 3 am and 6 am REM sleep occurs. It is a balance of these 2 phases that is important.
One of the first places we often look to improve our health is diet and exercise. While both of these are important, if we are also not working on managing our stress levels, we will continue to break down our immune system and increase our risk for modern, degenerative diseases. One of the first things to do is determine if stress is affecting you. If it is, then decide which stressors you can limit or avoid and which ones you can’t.
Identify the stressors you can avoid/limit
- Not saying “no”. Do you take on too much? Do you often say yes to projects, lunch dates, volunteer activities or other commitments that you don’t have time for?
- Media. If you are easily stressed by what is going on in the world, limit your exposure to the news. You can still get the information you need to know without being exposed to everything else that is going on.
- To-do lists. Sometimes these can be more stressful than what they are worth. It’s one thing to have a list of things you want to get done, but without prioritizing this list, it can become a major source of stress.
- Negative thoughts. Our thoughts are so powerful, they actually cause chemicals to be released in our brain. Good thoughts feed good chemicals, bad thoughts feed bad chemicals.
Find ways to mitigate the stressors you can’t avoid
- Do something YOU enjoy: read, write, play, listen to music, play music
- Socialize, laugh, have fun, talk about it, enjoy others’ company
- Journal: write down what’s on your mind; keep a gratification journal
- Take a walk
- Take a bath
- Just be
Eat a diet that minimizes excess stress on the body
- Limit or avoid caffeine, alcohol, sugar & refined carbohydrates, inflammatory fats and identify food sensitivities
- Include protein, omega-3 fats, antioxidant-rich foods like orange and yellow veggies, dark green leafy veggies, berries, beets, grapes, pomegranate, herbs and spices, detoxifying foods like cruciferous veggies broccoli, kale, collards, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, green tea, watercress, dandelion greens, cilantro, artichokes, garlic, pomegranate and cocoa
Limit exposure to environmental toxins5 that interfere with our stress response, and alter the normal circadian rhythms that control our eating behavior6
- Eat organic animal products and produce to avoid pesticides, herbicides, hormones and antibiotics
- Drink filtered water
- Use HEPA/ULPA filters and ionizers to reduce exposure to dust, molds, volatile organic compounds, and other sources of indoor air pollution
- Have house plants to help filter air
- Limit exposure to environmental petrochemicals from garden chemicals, dry cleaning, car exhaust and second-hand smoke
- Avoid household and personal care products that contain aluminum like deodorant, antacids, pots & pans
- Reduce electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from radios, TVs, computers, cell phones and microwaves
- Be aware of heavy metal exposure from predatory and river fish, water and lead paint
- Magnesium. Magnesium has been considered the “anti-stress” mineral in that it helps with sleep and relaxation, brain function, and it positively affects the sympathetic nervous system and norepinephrine release, which causes cortisol release as part of the stress response.
- Cenitol. Provides magnesium and inositol, which is a naturally occurring component of cell membranes and serves as a second messenger for several neurotransmitters.
- Somnolin. Provides a blend of nutrients, including vitamin B6, folate, B12, 5-HTP, and L-theanine, which support a restful and relaxed state. Ideal for those who may be having trouble sleeping due to feeling anxious or having racing thoughts. Note: do not take if on an anti-depressants, specifically serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
- Adrest. Provides a blend of adrenal adaptogens, including ginseng, cordyceps, and rhodiola extracts, which support an adaptive response to stress. Ideal for those feeling physical fatigue from prolonged stress.
As you can see, the immune system does not function alone. Three systems, digestive, nervous, and immune, all work together and influence each other. We can create an optimal environment for the immune system to thrive, based on the foods we eat, the nutrients we supplement and lifestyles we live. One of the most important and impactful things you can do for your health, but is often ignored, is stress management and sleep. Make sure to work these into your schedule so you can live a healthy and fulfilling life.
1. Dunn, A. Psychoneuroimmunology for the psychoneuroendocrinologist: a review of animal studies of nervous system-immune system interactions. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 14, 251.
2. Sapolsky, Robert. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1999.
3. Bonneau RH, Sheridan JF, Feng N, Glaser R (1993) Stress-induced modulation of the primary cellular immune response to herpes simplex virus infection is mediated by both adrenal-dependent and independent mechanisms. J Neuroimmunol 42(2):167–176
4. Kolb H, Mandrup-Poulsen T. The global diabetes epidemic as a con- sequence of lifestyle-induced low-grade inflammation. Diabetologia. 2010;53(1):10–20.
5. Hyman, Mark. Systems Biology, Toxins, Obesity, and Funcational Medicine. 13th International Symposium of The Institute for Functional Medicine. S134-139
6. Nicolau GY, Pesticide effects upon the circadian time structure in the thyroid, adrenal and testis in rats. Endocrinologie. 1982;20(2):73-9
7. Kresser, Chris. http://chriskresser.com/9-steps-to-perfect-health-6-manage-your-stress
About the Author
Andrea McDaniel, is a Holistic, Integrative and Registered Dietitian, Sports Nutritionist, Certified Personal Trainer and owner of My True Health, LLC. Andrea believes in an integrated approach to achieving true health and weight loss. She helps her clients get off the disease path and onto the path towards optimal health by getting to the root cause of their health issues.
Copyright © 2012 Andrea McDaniel, My True Health, LLC
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.