I was confronted with a question last week when I met with Mr Zuberi, an avid reader of Your Health and a resident of Kijitonayama in Dar es Salaam.
“Hey! What’s up doc, I have always heard that stress can cause someone to have low body immunity. That someone who is always stressed, is prone to minor illnesses, such as flue. How does that come about?”
Well, behind Zuberi’s thirst to know, lies a health problem that people have been grappling with, unknowingly.
“A healthy mind, means a healthy body,” so the saying goes and that’s why depression, one of the mental health disorders, is referred to as a ‘whole-body disorder.’
But, before going into the Why’s and How’s as per Zuberi’s question, it’s important to know that the immune system is the body’s defense mechanism for keeping us protected and safe from germs, such as the bacteria and viruses.
But, stress alone cannot make you catch a cold or flu virus.What it does, is weakens the immune system’s ability to respond to invaders, such as the bacteria I mentioned, leaving your body more vulnerable to infection.
It’s a complex interaction that scientists tend to refer to as psychoneuroimmunology. Don’t worry about the big word. It can be simply put.
Here is what really happens.
When a stressor attacks your body, there is usually a feeling that you are “under attack.” Then, stress hormones cortisol rise in response to the perceived attack. The rise of the hormones shouldn’t be a problem.
However, if this feeling persists for a long time, the body may be over-exposed to the cortisol and other stress hormones.
This affects cells of the immune system, making it unable to respond normally and thus increases the risk of further health problems.
But, the problem may not be direct.
Stressed people may resort to unhealthy coping strategies, such as smoking cigarettes or drinking too much alcohol.
They may also eat too much sugar. Worse still, is when they don’t sleep properly and give up on exercising and healthy social activities. This takes a big toll on their health.
So, when stressed, eat healthy foods. Choose natural foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds, and nuts.
Limit refined sugars that are known to weaken immunity, such as caffeine, alcohol and processed foods.
Exercise regularly. Exercise is known to improve immune system and helps the body release “feel good hormones” that help in combating stress.It is advised that you take 30 minutes of aerobic exercise and 5 to 10 minutes of passive stretching daily. But don’t overdo it, since too much intensity without adequate breaks will suppress immune function and increase stress, instead.