Decreasing Stress Improves Immune Function

Judith Boice, ND, LAc, FABNO - Chinese medicine recognizes the change of the seasons as a vulnerable time for our health. Traditionally, people would rest more, eat certain foods and herbs, and alter their activities to match the incoming season.

In the West, few of us have the luxury of slowing down to notice the seasonal changes, much less adapt to these transitional times. Recent research demonstrates that many stressors influence our immune system, making us vulnerable to both acute and chronic illnesses. Taking special care at this time of year can improve resilience and ensure a healthy transition into the autumn season.

We have two nervous systems that run all the time in the body, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. Although both are running continuously, one or the other dominates. When the sympathetic nervous system dominates, we are responding to a stressor, preparing to fight or run away. The stressor could be reacting to an angry driver honking in traffic, or worrying about a project at work. The body cannot differentiate between a real and an imagined threat. The body will respond in the same way, dumping epinephrine and norepinephrine, hormones that increase blood pressure, spike blood sugar, increase breathing, and shunt blood away from the digestive tract. These hormones are meant to make the body MOVE, to confront or run away from a danger.

After the surge of stress related hormones, though, most of us sit in our car or smile at our irritated boss. Meanwhile, the stress related hormones continue to circulate in the blood stream. They can circulate for hours or even days, until we finally move and “use up” those hormones.

When the parasympathetic nervous system dominates, the body is relaxed, the eyes are dilated, and the body can restore itself. The body only devotes itself to major tissue repair when the parasympathetic nervous system dominates.

Remember that stress impacts the immune system even when we are anticipating a stressful event. College students with a reported high Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), for example, had impaired antibody synthesis after a flu vaccination. "Worrying about something,” says Mark Twain, “is like paying interest on a debt you don't even know if you owe." In this case, the students “paid” for their worries with a compromised immune system. The study also demonstrated that chronic stress in elders and caregivers increased circulating levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines and glucocorticoids, both of which can impair immune function.¹

Once the body has learned to respond to high stress situations, e.g. combat soldiers responding to crises, the hormonal and immune systems seem to be pre-set to produce high levels of T-cells and inflammatory cytokines.² In other words, once the body goes on red alert, it stays on red alert. Even minor stressors illicit a major response. Fortunately researchers are discovering ways of retraining the body to respond more appropriately to every day stressors. Without retraining, though, chronic inflammation weakens the immune system, blood pressure soars, and blood sugar levels run amok.

What can you do to cool the flames of inflammation and restore the immune system?


  • Coffee
  • Alcohol
  • Prescription sedatives

These provide short-term relief for stress but exact a heavy price in the long run.

Focus on:

  • Progressive relaxation³
  • Qigong and Meditation⁵ ⁶
  • Sleep⁷
  • HEVERT Stress Relief, a combination homeopathic that offers relief for stress symptoms such as restlessness, nervousness, moodiness, sleeplessness and feeling anxious or agitated.


  1. Sribanditmongkol V, Neal JL. Effect of Perceived Stress on Cytokine Production in Healthy College Students. West J Nurs Res. 2014 Aug 13. pii: 0193945914545658. [Epub ahead of print]
  2. Smid GE, van Zuiden M. Cytokine production as a putative biological mechanism underlying stress sensitization in high combat exposed soldiers. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014 Jul 23. pii: S0306-4530(14)00262-5. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.07.010. [Epub ahead of print]
  3. Servant D¹, Germe A. [An integrative and transdiagnostic relaxation protocol for anxious patients. Results of a pilot study.][Article in French] Encephale. 2014 Aug 14. pii: S0013-7006(14)00159-6. doi: 10.1016/j.encep.2014.07.001. [Epub ahead of print]
  4. Fang Wang, Jenny Man, et al. The Effects of Qigong on Anxiety, Depression, and Psychological Well-Being: A Systematic Review and Meta Analysis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Volume 2013, article ID 152738.
  5. Kaliman P, Alvarez-López MJ. “Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators.” Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014 Feb;40:96-107.
  6. Davidson R, Kabat-Zinn, J.Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine 65:564-570 (2003)
  7. Sarris J, Byrne GJ. A systematic review of insomnia and complementary medicine. Sleep Med Rev. 2011 Apr;15(2):99-106. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2010.04.001. Epub 2010 Jun 8.
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