Stress, loneliness and your immune system

The way our healthcare system is set up and the developments we have made there over the past 100 years have given us the ability to perform the most brilliant brain surgeries, organ transplantations, but above all, we have developed for every illness known to man. The unfortunate thing about this system is that the underlying causes of these diseases are not always addressed at their source. A pity because as our traditional Dutch saying goes:;

“Prevention is better than curing”

The current health crisis has revealed that not everyone reacts the same to the virus. Sometimes this is due to the degree of viral load, often also to the age of the person, or to underlying diagnosed diseases. But even if we look at the group that doesn’t fall has seemingly no underlying conditions, we see enormous differences. Some come off with a cough for a few days, others do become seriously ill, have a risk of lung damage, and are often tired for weeks after infection, and then there is also a very large asymptomatic group..!

And although there are several factors that influence this, I would like to address a subject today that, in my opinion, receives too little attention. A topic that is not unimportant given the current tense situation, the frightening articles we read on a daily basis, the concerns we might have about keeping our job, if our business will survive or how we will homeschool children whilst keeping a full-time job. But certainly also in view of our reduced social contacts and a feeling of loneliness. All these factors cause one thing; STRESS

Stress

Physical or mental stress regulates our autonomic nervous system. Our autonomic nervous system in turn regulates all kinds of systems in our body that we don’t consciously think about, like our heart rate, digestion, breathing, and of course our immune system! Can you remember the last time you consciously fought off a viral infection? No.. Your autonomic nervous system takes care of that all by itself when an infection occurs OR when your body thinks an infection is likely to occur …

Here is how it works, our body has evolved in a time of constant danger. Tigers, snakes, enemy tribes, you name it. To survive all this, we had to be able to “fight or flight” quickly when needed. Every time such a threat occurred your body was smart enough to trigger the immune system in the unlikely event you end up in the claws of such a tiger.

Chronic stress

Well, you might think – Great, my immune system is already working before I contract a viral infection! The problem, however, is that this system is designed to protect you from acute danger and once the danger has passed, your body should return to its normal state. Studies show that under long-term stress, the immune system is suppressed and the risk of viral infections increases. 

A 2002 study by Lyanne McGuire, PhD, of the John Hopkins School of Medicine with Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser (1), reported that even chronic, subclinical mild depression can suppress an older person’s immune system. The study participants were in their early 70s caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Those with chronic mild depression had weaker lymphocyte T cell responses to two mitogens, which modeled how the body responds to viruses and bacteria. The immune response was diminished even 18 months later, and immunity declined with age.

In line with the 2004 meta-analysis, it was found that the main immune factor was the duration of the depression, not its severity. And in the case of the older caregivers, their depression and age meant a double hit to their immunity.

The researchers noted that a lack of social support has been reported in the study as a risk factor for depression, an insight that was reinforced in a 2005 study of college students. Health psychologists Sarah Pressman, PhD, Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., and fellow researchers from the Carnegie Mellon University Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity and Disease, found that social isolation and feelings of loneliness each independently weakened freshman’s immunity.

Conclusion

The current health crisis has exposed a problem that has been around for some time. Stress and other factors have a direct impact on our health. It’s not onto me to decide if the stress caused by the current measures outweighs the potential benefit they impose. I do believe however that lifestyle intervention that could change both physical and mental health should be an integral part of the road that takes us out of this crisis.