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Is Stress Making You Sicker?

We all know that stress is bad for the body- increasing your risk of health conditions like heart attack, stroke, ulcers, and asthma. But you might not know how stress impacts your immune system.

New research suggests that constant stress can actually age your immune system, making you less able to fight against diseases and control inflammation within your body. In this blog, we’ll break down what this means and how to prevent it.

The study:

Researchers from the National Academy of Sciences have discovered that certain kinds of stress can age your immune system. Using an existing body of data, the researchers looked at survey responses from over 5,700 American adults ages 50 or older. The survey quizzed respondents about social stressors in their lives- like chronic stress, traumatic life events, discrimination, and job strain. Then, the researchers cross-referenced survey results with immune cell counts from the participant’s blood samples.

The researchers found that those with higher levels of stress were more likely to have older immune system profiles. Such immune system profiles typically have a weakened ability to protect against cancer and infections and fail to support appropriate wound healing. You can read the full study here.

This is the first study to examine the relationship between stress and immunological function. While the study only examined several kinds of immune cells, the chosen few are good indicators of overall immunity robustness.

This study demonstrates that stress can have a more damaging impact on the body than many previously assumed. Your immune system is one of the most important systems in your body, and you should want to keep it as youthful and sprightly as possible. Your immune system aging prematurely can lead to an increased risk of disease, cancer, and infection.

What does an aging immune system mean?

There are two main types of immunity when it comes to the immune system- innate and adaptive. Innate immunity is our first line of defense against infections, while adaptive immunity is responsible for remembering and attacking pathogens. As our immune system ages, both innate and adaptive immunity are impacted in different ways.

Innate immunity:

In defending our bodies against infections, innate immunity triggers the release of inflammatory molecules to attack the pathogen. An older immune system will have trouble turning off the defense spawned by the innate immune system. This means that your immune cells keep attacking, which will lead to chronic, systemic inflammation. This systemic, low-level inflammation actually has a name- “inflammaging.”

We know that not all inflammation is bad, it’s actually the body’s natural response to protect itself against harm. It is spurred by the immune system to protect the body from disease, infection, and injury. Without inflammation, your body would not be able to properly heal itself from many kinds of injury or disease. But, a key part of inflammation is being able to turn it off- an aging immune system has trouble doing that.

Further, older immune systems have trouble halting inflammation due to the accumulation of aged, or senescent immune cells. These senescent immune cells actually produce more cytokines, the molecules that promote inflammation. Over time, high levels of inflammatory molecules have been linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, neurodegenerative disease, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

Adaptive immunity:

As our immune system ages, adaptive immunity will lose the ability to fight off viruses, fungi, and bacteria. The T cell, a type of immune cell, plays an integral role in adaptive immunity. “Naive” T cells are the ones that recognize a pathogen and remember it for next time. As we age, our T cell number actually remains constant, but the supply of naive T cells (the ones able to recognize new diseases) shrinks over the years, as more and more cells become linked to different pathogens.

As a result, an older immune system will not be able to fight off new pathogens as well as it did years ago. For the same reason, vaccinations do not work as well on the older immune systems.

In addition to the declining immunity, senescent T cells also produce more inflammatory cytokines. (The same ones discussed above.) These cytokines will only spur the chronic inflammation of inflammaging.

How to reverse an aging immune system?

The good news is, there are certain lifestyle changes you can make to promote a healthy immune system into old age.

Stick with a Mediterranean diet:

While there are no studies looking exactly at how dietary changes impact the aging of the immune system, there is plenty of indirect evidence. In particular, research has suggested that those who follow the Mediterranean diet tend to age better- with greater muscle strength, walking speed, and energy than those who eat a regular diet. Essentially, if you follow the Mediterranean diet, you’ll likely be less “frail” as you age. Frailty in old age is also associated with high levels of inflammation- meaning it’s connected to a failing immune system.

Earlier studies have linked the Mediterranean diet to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity, and cardiovascular disorder.

The Mediterranean diet focuses mainly on eating plant-based foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean proteins. It promotes eating whole foods and few processed foods. You could consider the Mediterranean diet to be more of an eating pattern than a diet, as it doesn't have such strict restrictions.

  • Emphasizes olive oil and other healthy fats such as avocados

  • Whole grains

  • Legumes

  • Leafy greens

  • Emphasizes nutrient-rich foods

  • No need to count calories or carbohydrates

  • Lower intake of sugar due to the amount of other fresh foods

Get regular exercise:

In a recent review by Nature Reviews Immunology, researchers demonstrated that exercise has a profound impact on the immune system. There is evidence to suggest that exercising can slow and even reverse some of the effects of immune system aging.

Several studies have demonstrated how and why exercise promotes immune health:

  • Physical activity helps to build skeletal muscle, which produces proteins called myokines that preserve immune function and reduce inflammation.

  • Another study found that increased physical activity decreases the number of senescent, disabled T cells. This will help to boost adaptive immunity.

  • A third study demonstrated that older men who exercise regularly produce more antibodies in response to vaccination than older men who do not.

These studies suggest that keeping a regular workout routine as you age will help your immune system to stay young. Moreover, exercising regularly can help reverse the signs of aging caused by stress on the immune system.

Maintain a healthy weight:

Fat, or “adipose” tissue, may have the opposite effect as the anti-inflammatory skeletal muscle. As we age, we naturally build up adipose tissue under the skin and around the organs. And, according to research, this adipose tissue might majorly contribute to inflammaging. Up to 30% of pro-inflammatory cytokines may stem from adipose tissue. This means that the more adipose tissue you have, the more inflammation throughout your body.

Moreover, both human and animal studies have demonstrated that obesity causes a lower immune response to vaccines. This means that the adaptive immune system is creating fewer antibodies.

Eating healthy and working out seem to counter the effects of an aging immune system. In part, this may be because the two lifestyle factors prevent excessive weight gain.

The importance of decreasing stress in your life:

The best thing you can do to keep your immune system aging at a healthy rate is to decrease stress throughout your life. Moreover, beyond your immune system, stress detrimentally impacts nearly every aspect of the body. Daily, ongoing stress can lead to health problems typically associated with chronic stress. For example, persistent stress hormone surges can lead to:

  • Damage to blood vessels and arteries

  • Long-term heightened blood pressure

  • Increased risk of heart attack or stroke

  • Build-up of fat

  • Increased appetite

  • Insomnia

  • GI issues

  • Weakened immune system

  • Weight gain

Some great ways to destress throughout the day include:

  • Meditating

  • Connecting with others

  • Yoga

  • Getting adequate sleep

  • Journaling

  • Listening to music

  • Exercise regularly

  • Reduce stress triggers

Another important aspect of decreasing stress in your life is by learning how to hack your stress response. Understanding how your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems impact your fight or flight response is important in living a low-stress lifestyle. Click here to learn about how to hack your stress response.

Just because you’re aging doesn’t mean your immune system has to as well. Lowering stress levels and keeping your body in shape can allow you to live a long, healthy life.

For more information on reversing the clock for your immune system, click here to contact us. If you have any more questions about your path to optimal health, email our office at or call 276-235-3205.

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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