How Stress Can Damage the Immune System

Managing stress is very important to our emotional and physical wellbeing. However, it is also clear that a potentially dangerous situation that can arise if distress becomes a chronic problem. Researchers have known for many decades that chronic stress can cause serious physiological problems such as high blood pressure, gastro-intestinal problems, and neurological problems including headache pain. In more recent years, the evidence has been mounting that stress also causes damage at the cellular level. One interesting finding is that in addition to genetic factors, significant stress can contribute to gray hair. Although there is no suggestion that a traumatic event will cause gray hair overnight, there is evidence that the cells that produce melanin, which gives hair its color, are damaged by stress. As these cells die off, as they normally do with age, the hair does not have enough melanin to give it color. Stress appears to speed up the aging process of these cells to produce a visible sign of the damage. My own grey hair after surviving Hurricane Andrew, Katrina, Wilma, and Irma is testimony to this phenomenon!

The impact of stress on hair color is interesting, but certainly not life altering. However, a more serious threat of stress on our health provides us with more motivation to handle stress in proactive ways. Chronic stress does have an adverse effect on our immune system. Since our immune system is our primary defense against everything from the common cold and flu viruses to cancer cells, it is important to be aware of your risks if your immune system is compromised. Although short-term stress can activate your immune system in a positive way, long-term stress, which produces too much cortisol and other stress hormones, can be detrimental. The process is briefly summarized below.

We all have certain cells that the immune system uses to protect us by attacking virus-infected cells, mutant cells, and transplanted tissue. Two of the types of cells that get much of the research attention are T-cells and Natural Killer (NK) cells. Much of the research with both animals and humans shows that the biochemical changes during prolonged stress can prevent T-cells from maturing in the thymus gland and will also decrease NK cell counts. This could be harmful for anyone who has a compromised immune system (e.g., HIV+ individuals, anyone with an auto-immune disorder, and those receiving chemotherapy). Fortunately, considerable research indicates that meditation or relaxation methods, rational self-talk, exercise, a good social support network, and proactive stress management skills can all increase T-cell and NK cell counts. Many of these strategies are now being used in various medical settings where improved resilience to stress will help improve the success of other treatments.

Our next blog post will be on how to improve resilience to the effects of stress. Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.