The influence of prolonged stress on the immune system

Headaches, insomnia, loss of appetite – chronic stress can manifest itself in many ways. The immune system also suffers when the body is constantly under stress. Researchers have now found this out.

Whether it is work stress or problems in private life: anyone who is constantly under stress puts their health in danger, in the long term. A University of Southern California study has now shown that chronic stress not only ages the immune system, but also increases the risk of developing cancer and cardiovascular disease.

With age, the immune system weakens

Our immune system protects us from pollutants and pathogens. Defense cells attack the potential pathogen and render it harmless. The innate and acquired immune systems work hand in hand.1

As we age, however, the immune system weakens and pathogens have a harder time invading the body. The reason for this is, on the one hand, the large number of already consumed white blood cells and, on the other hand, the small number of “fresh” defense cells circulating in the blood. There are age-related symptoms such as an increased risk of pneumonia, but also diseases such as cancer.2

Also interesting: How do you recognize that you have a weak immune system?

Stress causes the immune system to age faster

But even in middle-aged people the so-called immune senescence is already visible. Scientists suspect that chronic stress may be the cause of a prematurely aging immune system.

To verify this, the research team examined 5,744 adults over the age of 50, took blood samples, and asked them about different social stressors. These included:

  • daily discrimination
  • stressful life events
  • discrimination for life
  • trauma
  • chronic stress (e.g. work-related)

The result: People who were exposed to more stress had a higher percentage of “used” white blood cells and fewer fresh blood cells. Biologically speaking, their immune systems were older. This connection remained clear even when various influencing factors such as education level, smoking status, alcohol consumption and BMI were considered.3

Also interesting: Constant stress and mental illness can damage the heart

Improper diet and lack of exercise increase the effect

Another study finding: Chronic stress also apparently leads to poorer eating habits and a lack of exercise. It is well known that a balanced and healthy diet as well as regular exercise and sports can reduce stress levels.

Furthermore, eating and exercise habits could have a direct influence on the development of immune cells. This is because T cells, an important part of the immune system, develop in the thymus, which is located behind the breastbone. However, as we age, the tissue in the thymus shrinks and is replaced by fatty tissue. There is a reduced production of immune cells. An unhealthy diet and lack of exercise can even speed up this process – a vicious cycle.

Also interesting: Mistletoe tea helps with stress, insomnia and heart disease

Ways to reduce chronic stress

At the same time, a healthy lifestyle can help reduce stress and strengthen the immune system. Experts therefore recommend paying attention to the following aspects:

  • get enough sleep
  • provide relaxation
  • regular physical activity
  • high-fiber diet with lots of fruits and vegetables
  • not smoking

Applications that strengthen the immune system can also help fight premature aging. These include alternating showers and regular sauna visits.


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