How to Reduce Stress and Protect Your Immune System

Stress is inevitable. Getting sick from it is not.

The term “stressor,” a word coined no earlier than 1956, is now a catchall for feeling nervous, tense, anxious, bugged, worried, panicky, sick to your stomach. It’s a natural response to unnatural conditions. It’s how we know that the world is headed in a direction we would rather avoid. In fact, the “fight or flight” reflex has been naturally selected for: organisms that lacked it might have otherwise tumbled off a cliff or gotten crushed by a prehistoric mastodon.

All this to say, anxiety gets a bad rap. Sit in a traffic jam long enough or watch the looming project deadline draw nearer and you’ll begin to sense the effects of rising cortisol levels. It’s the way in which your body motivates you to get out the door earlier tomorrow or forgo procrastination just this once. Thankfully, acute stressors are fleeting and their effects are negligible on the body’s overarching physical wellbeing and immune system.

Anxiety’s unnatural shift to manifesting illnesses requires more than the peaks and valleys of normal pressures, disappointments and annoyances.

Our modern illness-inducing “mastodons” look much more like long-term psychological stress from such mind-racing troubles like divorce, unemployment, and highly dysfunctional family relationships persisting for at least a month. 

But there’s always hope. If you understand the nature of a chronically stressed-out body, you’ll be able to effectively temper its effects.

What Happens to a Stressed-Out Immune System?

Anxiety and stress can be dishonest guides, at least in biological terms.

Heavy psychological pressure renders our immune systems less effective because it elicits a “false” immune response itself. Stress causes the body to release pro-inflammatory cytokines— messenger chemicals of the immune system that travel through the blood and send out inflammatory flare signals at signs of infection.

When the body produces cytokines over long periods of time from chronic stress, it limits the ability to fight infection and heal wounds, while increasing the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, autoimmune diseases and allergy risks from chronic inflammation.

We may revere or denigrate our immune system based on its ability to protect or its failure to do so. I once heard a colleague refer to his immune system as a “tank” that he fueled with 15 oranges at the first sign of illness. But our immune system is much more like a micro-military, a whole fleet of tanks consisting of billions of lymphocyte cells that dangerously decrease in the presence of the stress hormone cortisol.

The Gut: Where Bacteria and Immune System Meet

About 80% of your immune system resides in your gastrointestinal tract with 500 different species of bacteria living within you. Some of these bacteria are “good”—preventing the growth of less desirable strains by competing for both nutrition and attachment sites in the tissues of the colon. These organisms also aid digestion and nutrient absorption such that the ideal balance between them is 85% “good” and 15% “other” strains that provide little to no benefit. 

In times of stress, blood flow is restricted, and the long-term distress reduces microbial diversity and friendly flora, thereby creating conditions that encourage undesirable strains to thrive. The immune system of the gut fails to receive the influx of fresh blood needed to function well.

Chronic stress also makes the digestive tract more permeable, leaving you vulnerable to a wide range of challenges such as insomnia, cardiovascular issues, fatigue, skin issues, and stomach pain.

How to Be Better at Stress 

The idea that stress is caused by stuff out there in the environment, that it is like an incurable disease we can catch and not a symptom of temporary internal and external conflicts grants much more credibility to stressors than they’re due. 

The idea that stress is caused by stuff out there in the environment, that it is like an incurable disease we can catch and not a symptom of temporary internal and external conflicts grants much more credibility to stressors than they’re due. 

As a result, I maintain the following daily lifestyle routines in order to effectively manage stress and boost immunity through gut health:

Reduce Inflammation. If every hormone in your body is signaling for inflammation, it only makes sense to nourish your body with healing plant-based foods and to support your diet with anti-inflammatory supplements such as turmeric, ginger, vitamin C and probiotics.

Consume Gut-Healing Foods. Bone broth and collagen-rich foods like spinach, kale, tomatoes, beets and fish help repair a leaky gut and improve liver function.  

Meditate. Practice mindfulness for 10 to 15 minutes three or four times weekly to reduce stress in the car, in bed, on a lunch break. If it feels impossible to manufacture peace amidst a trial, try apps like Headspace and Calm that maintain a positive focus for you. 

Sleep. People who suffer from chronic stress often experience a cycle of sleeplessness, though even slight sleep deprivation can affect memory, judgment and mood. Healthy coping strategies include meditation and simple breathing exercises.

Exercise. Imagine exercise as mediation in motion by improving your mood and releasing endorphins through movement and physical activity.

Seek Therapy. Cognitive therapy for stress rests on the premise that it’s not simply the events in our lives that cause us anxiety; it’s the way in which we think about them. If you need help breaking out of negative thought patterns, cognitive therapy or a mix of cognitive and behavioral therapy may be effective.

Maintain Routine + Schedule. Unpredictability can contribute to anxiety and fears of the unknown. Maintaining consistent schedules and anticipating the expectations for each part of your day may help to reduce stress.

Being human is all about coping with our biology and stressors as they arise from the circumstances in our lives. When the unpredictable, catastrophic and hard stuff seemingly takes hold of every emotion in your body, remember that you can take control of your mind and make positive choices to protect your immune system.

Anxiety can be overwhelming. For help managing the effects of stress on your gut health and immune system reach out here to discuss your symptoms or visit for more information.

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