A state of distress causes stress…
According to Oriental medicine, stress, frustration, and unresolved anger play a role in disrupting the immune system and allowing pathogens to affect the body. Dr. Tao Xie, our herbal medicine mentor who is very well known for his success in the treating of patients with immune disorders, teaches that “emotion management” is one of three significant areas of focus when looking to benefit the immune system. Since our emotional state affects our stress levels and vice versa, reference to “emotion management” is also seen as stress management. In fact, both stress and emotional issues have a strong correlation with the immune system.
How Stress and Emotional Issues Affect the Immune System
There has been plenty of research to support the fact that stress suppresses our immune system, affecting our ability to heal and making us more vulnerable to illness. Typically, when the body is invaded by bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens, our immune system will respond by sending out antibodies produced by white blood cells to neutralize the viruses. However, when the body is stressed, the adrenals produce hormones (steroids called corticosteroids) that slow down the production of white blood cells. Without white blood cells, there are no antibodies to attack foreign substances. In turn, the viruses and pathogens are allowed to move through the bloodstream freely and attack our cells, making us vulnerable to a range of illnesses and diseases.
As demonstrated in many studies, negative or unpredictable events seem to have the greatest affect on the immune system. Death of a spouse, a divorce, a fight, negative thoughts, financial burdens…events like these all influence our emotional state and our levels of stress. However, even foreseen situations will affect our health. This was seen in a study by Kimzey (1975), who found that American astronauts who had just gone through the stress of re-entry to earth had a lower white blood cell count.
If stress is not dealt with in a timely and appropriate manner, the immune system suffers. In 1991, Cohen carried out a large study that measured the stress index of 394 participants. The questionnaire also took into account their feelings about and ability to cope with stress. They were then given nasal drops that infected them with cold viruses. When tested by doctors, there was a direct correlation between their stress index and the probability that they developed a cold.
With fewer white blood cells available, not only does our immune system take a hit, but our ability to heal slows down as well, since we need those white blood cells for repair. By taking biopsies of participants, one study demonstrated that it took people longer to heal who were stressed by caring for elderly relatives. Kiecolt-Glaser et al (2005) took another approach and looked at the effects of marital arguments on the immune system and wound healing. They found that when individuals were simply engaged in a negative and emotional discussion around areas of disagreement about their spouse, their ability to heal blisters took a day longer to repair than when engaged in a positive discussion.
If you find yourself in a long term stressful situation, it is key that you find ways to manage the stress.
Tips on Managing Stress
When we are stressed, the body produces stress hormones such as cortisol. In times of danger, we are thankful for cortisol because it gives us the energy and alertness for “fight or flight.” However,high levels of cortisol can lower your immunity and inflammatory responses, as well as slow down the wound healing process [John R. Lee, M.D.]. Elevated cortisol levels from prolonged or chronic stress can cause a host of problems from pain to diabetes. Components of significant support in managing stress include acupuncture treatments, adaptogenic herbs, and sleep.
It has been demonstrated in several studies since the early 80’s that acupuncture can actually mitigate stress hormones. Acupuncture improves circulation of blood throughout the body, which oxygenates the tissues and cycles out cortisol (stress hormone) and other waste chemicals. The calming nature of acupuncture also decreases heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and relaxes the muscles. Most of our patients are actually able to feel this, experiencing it as a strong relaxation effect that lasts long after treatment.
Herbs are an effective way to help manage stress, as well. At Family Acupuncture Wellness, we use adaptogenic herbs with our patients. Adaptogens are substances within particular plants that allow the body to function non-reactively in a state of stress. They counteract stress-based conditions, low energy, and disrupted sleep rhythms. Adaptogens often work, in part, by stimulating immune response and supporting the central nervous system.
The attention to sleep issues and insomnia is also a key component of emotional management. Studies indicate that chronic insomnia occurs in people who have high levels of stress hormones and compromised immune systems. Research shows it is the lack of sleep that promotes stress hormones, and not the other way around. Insufficient sleep produces extra cortisol to help keep the body alert and awake, mimicking a state of stress.
We find that a huge percentage of our patients respond much better to their main complaints when we address their emotional issues as well. The combination of acupuncture and herbs can very effectively treat mild to moderate anxiety and depression. Given what we know about stress hormones and their effect on immune function, this only makes sense.