Stress and the Immune System

We can calm our stress response, support our well-being by tending to body's core needs
July 15, 2020 Updated: July 20, 2020

Occasional stress is good. It kicks our bodies into high gear, making us more able to ward off imminent threats. But prolonged stress—the kind many Americans have felt since COVID-19 arrived—can suppress the immune system and disrupt our digestive system, lymphatic system, and more.

“Stress is physical,” says Chris Johnson, an exercise physiologist and author of a series of best-selling “On Target Living” books, the first of which came out in 2007. “The heart rate goes up, muscles contract, pupils dilate. It doesn’t matter if what you perceive as threatening is in fact near or far, real or not, the effect is still physical and over time, harmful.”

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Johnson is a nationally recognized speaker and has been the director of health, wellness, and fitness at Sparrow Hospital’s Michigan Athletic Club for more than 15 years. His lectures (these days by remote) focus on taming our sympathetic nervous system (the gas pedal) and engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (the brakes) so that we aren’t always in stress mode. The three foundational pillars of health—how we rest, eat, and move—are key, he says.

Below are some of his tips to lower the stress response and thereby strengthen the immune system.

Breath

According to Johnson, most people are shallow breathers, taking 18 breaths per minute, when the goal should be 10. He advises placing your finger below your navel while breathing in deeply through your nose and noticing how the belly expands. Then, slowly exhale and feel the belly contract inward. Be mindful of how many breaths you take per minute, aiming for 10 slow, deep breaths.

“Forty percent of us breathe through our mouth. Instead, breathe through your nose, using your diaphragm,” he says. “That will calm us by engaging both the vagus nerve (the longest nerve in the body) and the parasympathetic system.”

Another calming trick is to breathe out of one nostril, your finger closing the other, for 30 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side.

“Don’t underestimate the power of proper breathing,” he urges. Age reduces breath capacity, so make diaphragmatic breathing a habit starting now.

Sleep

One of the fastest-growing number of prescriptions in the United States today is for sleeping pills, more evidence of the stress most Americans are feeling.

“During REM sleep, the glymphatic system takes out the trash,” says Johnson. “And the last two hours of sleep are important because that’s when most of our REM occurs. So, try to get eight hours.”

Johnson advises asking ourselves how our “sleeping environment” is. The room should be kept between 60 and 65 degrees because when our body temperature drops at night, our sleep mode is initiated. A hot bath is a good idea. Once out of the bath, the body cools naturally.

If you awaken in the night, Johnson suggests getting more magnesium into your daily diet, ideally from food rather than supplements. Beans, almonds, chia and flax seeds, oatmeal, blackberries, and cocoa nibs are great sources. Cocoa nibs also have more antioxidants than green tea and studies show help insulin sensitivity.

Finally, put on soothing music. Soundscape is a TV channel that plays tranquil, sleep-inducing music. And it can be set on a timer so it turns off automatically.

“I love Baroque music,” he says. “It’s a chill pill.”

Proper Hydration

“Life in the U.S. is acidic,” Johnson says. As the body gets acidic, inflammation rises, setting the stage for disease. Moreover, if your body is too acidic, a state known as acidosis, alkalizing minerals like magnesium are leached out. Water, which is naturally pH balanced, can clean out detoxify the body. Water is also key to our metabolism and indirectly helps energize the body. Johnson recommends six to eight ounces of water when you first wake up.

The daily target should be half of one’s body weight in ounces; a person who weighs 150 pounds should drink 75 ounces of water.

“Ninety percent of people coming into emergency rooms are dehydrated,” Johnson says. Everything in our body works better hydrated. Our skin is the first line of defense from invaders; other blockers include mucus in nasal passages (which is why we should breathe through the nose), the clear layer over our cornea, and specialized tissue that lines the lungs, bladder, and digestive system.

The liquids our body makes not only shield us from dirt and germs, but also contain enzymes that can kill bacteria.  That’s why staying hydrated is vital. Unfortunately, during stressful times, it’s not unusual for people to turn to dehydrating alcohol. So, make drinking plenty of water a priority.

Superfoods

“All diets out there have always manipulated one of the three macronutrients, either carbs, fats, or protein,” Johnson says. “The latest manipulate carbs, but remember most of your pre and pro-biotics come from carbs like yams, bananas, oats, apples, and grains.”

And serotonin, which helps create melatonin (the sleep hormone), can be more readily available after digesting carbs, particularly the much-maligned of late, whole grains.

“We’ve been eating grains for 5000 years. So why now is everyone gluten intolerant?” he asks. “Thirty million Americans are on auto-immune drugs and 90 percent of our immune system is in the gut.” Johnson believes the constant stress of modern life is destroying our immune systems but the impact of our poor diet can’t be overlooked. Eating true food, with actual fiber and nutrients, is critical. Slow-cooked, steel-cut oats aren’t the same as instant, flavored oatmeal.

Superfoods such as cod liver oil, flax seeds, and chia seeds will provide omega-3 fatty acids that are linked to better nervous system function, but most Americans don’t get enough. Another superfood Johnson likes is chlorophyll, which cleanses us internally. Particularly good sources of chlorophyll are spinach, collard greens, mustard greens, chlorella, spirulina, alfalfa, parsley, and broccoli.

And to get important probiotic support naturally, eat one tablespoon of sauerkraut before dinner. Probiotics are helpful bacteria and other microbes that reside in the gut.

Equally important is learning to relax before eating, which means habits like “saying grace” or “giving thanks” at mealtimes likely have healthful benefits. Pausing for a moment of prayer lowers stress hormones such as cortisol, while increasing saliva, allowing for better digestion so the body can extract the needed nutrients for a healthier immune system. A healthy immune system isn’t disturbed by nuts and grains that might otherwise cause an allergic reaction.

Bottom line, according to Johnson, a healthy gut equals a healthy immune system, which equals a positive mind more able to adapt to stressors.

Movement

Daily movement helps every bodily system, including the cardiovascular, lymphatic, and digestive systems.

“But the No. 1 benefit of moving your body is what it does for the mind,” the exercise physiologist says. “Motion creates positive emotion and it helps clear the mind.”

Johnson advises exercising at least 10 minutes every day and working up to more.

“And find time to play more.”

Of course, easy stretching and yoga are instant stress busters and Johnson urges both, as well as the use of a foam roller, which can be used to ease back and neck muscle tension by placing it on the floor, lying on it horizontally, then rolling from side to side between shoulder blades with knees bent and arms extended to each side.

When asked where to begin, Johnson advises starting with the breath, which will calm the nervous system, then adds: “Most of us tend to overestimate a threat and underestimate our ability to handle it. You have control over the three foundational pillars of health, how you rest, eat, and move.

“You are the source and solution to your stress.”

Joni Ravenna Sussman is a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness. Her articles have appeared in dozens of national and regional publications over the years. She is also a playwright and TV writer.