Stress and the Immune System

We live in a stressful world and need to be mindful of how stress can affect our well-being.  One of the key ways is lowering our immunity to foreign invaders.  This makes us more prone to illness and serious disease.  The human body has many defenses against foreign bacteria, viruses, and the like.  When stress levels are not too high, our immune system usually functions well.  When we are overcome with stress, our defenses do not work effectively.

The skin and mucus membranes protect us from foreign invaders.  If they enter the stomach, they are destroyed by hydrochloric acid.  Relying on antacids for stomach upset can reduce acid levels. This, in turn, diminishes the ability of the stomach in fighting off invaders.
We also have white blood cells to destroy our enemies.  Some of these cells are produced by the thymus gland.  The thymus gland should be supported at all times.  Increased support is necessary when there is stress, disease, and poor nutrition (Murray, 2000).

The thymus itself shrinks with age.  It can shrink more with disease and poor nutrition.  Stress and environmental toxins can have the same effect. This results in less immunity and the potential for illness.  Can we stop the shrinkage of the thymus?  Research shows, in fact, that this is so.  Food high in antioxidants, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, are key.  Supplements can support the thymus as well.  These include beta-carotene, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, selenium, and zinc (Murray, 2000).

Along with supplements, become familiar with foods containing these antioxidants.  Beta-carotene is a Vitamin A precursor.  High levels are found in green and yellow-orange fruits and vegetables.  Some of these include carrots, kale, parsley, and spinach.  Dandelion greens, apricots, and cantaloupe also are good sources of beta- carotene.  There are many foods high in Vitamin C.  These include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards and kale.  Parsley, sweet peppers, spinach, strawberries, and papaya also are high in Vitamin C (Lieberman & Bruning, 2007,)

Vitamin E is found in fats of vegetable foods.  Use unprocessed vegetable oils, and consume nuts.  Walnuts and pecans are especially high in Vitamin E.  Selenium is highest in seafood, meats, organ meats, and Brazil nuts. Sources of zinc include meats, poultry, fish, seafood, liver, eggs, and legumes.  Vitamin B-12 also is involved in supporting the immune system.  It is found in beef, herring, mackerel, egg yolk, milk, and cheese (Lieberman & Bruning, 2007).  Vegans are encouraged to take B-12 supplements.

It also is important to remember the role of the lymph system in immunity.  The lymph system is filters fluid wastes from cell activity.  For lymph to do its work, we must exercise! Mild to moderately and not in excess. What’s the connection?  Lymph cannot pump fluid like the heart.  Exercise helps to circulate lymph throughout the body.  Tai chi and ballet are especially helpful in stimulating the lymphatic system (Murray, 2000).

Another way to manage stress is to be mindful of how we react to stress.  Our reactions are often more stressful than the experience itself.  Try to put the stressful event in perspective.  Often it comes down to not sweating the small stuff.  Laughter is truly the best medicine.  Laughing yoga is a fun way to wash stress away.  It involves learning to laugh at situations that normally are upsetting.  We learn to laugh at missing a train.  Ha ha ha to being stuck in a traffic jam and the like. There are laughing yoga clubs located throughout the world.  Mediation and yoga also can wash away stress.

One of the best favors you can do for yourself for stress is to greatly reduce or eliminate refined sugar from the diet.  Sugar intake, especially as part of a diet of processed foods, can suppress the immune system.  During those times of suppression, we are more prone to illness and disease.  If you can just eliminate sugar from your diet for two weeks, you will feel better!  Food will taste better as well!  It may sound daunting to eliminate sugar for two weeks.  But it can make a world of difference in your emotional and physical well-being.  Just give it a try!


Lieberman, S. & Bruning, N. The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book: The Definitive Guide to Designing Your Personal Supplement Program. Avery (a member of Penguin Group), New York, 2007.

Murray, M. Total Body Tune-Up: Slow Down the Aging Process, Keep Your System Running Smoothly, Help Your Body Heal Itself- for Life! Bantam Books, New York, 2000.