Beat Stress to Boost Immunity
The Coronavirus has reminded us of the importance of having a strong immune system. We are being advised to boost our immunity to the virus by eating healthy foods packed with nutrition and vitamins. But are we also remembering to reduce our stress levels?
Stress and anxiety are very damaging to health and can have a negative impact on the immune system. In this article we look at the physical impact of stress on the body and what to do about it.
Perhaps you already know that it’s good for your health to take time out to relax, meditate, go for a walk in nature, read a book, laugh, dance, stretch – whatever works for you as a way of stress relief. But do you know how relaxation can improve your health?
When the adrenaline ‘rush’ becomes chronic
Too many of us have forgotten what it feels like to really relax. Today’s fast-paced lifestyle puts high pressure on most of us – we feel compelled to perform better, achieve more, work harder, earn more, study further, move faster, sleep less, be more productive and even play harder. All this demands high outputs of energy.
When we are under stress the body releases a flood of the ‘fight or flight’ hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies, and cortisol releases glucose in the bloodstream and enhances your brain’s use of glucose. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear. It’s the body’s way of helping us to be on high alert to deal with a threat.
During this time, physical functions that are not essential for survival are suppressed, in particular the immune system, the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes.
Under normal circumstances, once the threat of danger has passed, the hormone levels are meant to return to normal to allow the body to resume its essential functions. But when the body is not given a chance to do this, such as during long periods of chronic stress, its levels of adrenaline and cortisol will remain too high. These can be very damaging to our health, causing inflammation, a compromised immune system, digestive problems, sleep disturbances and much more.
The body’s cry for help
If we are subjected to chronic stress, over time we begin to experience ‘burnout.’ We may feel constantly fatigued, depressed and disconnected. Often, we resort to stimulants like caffeine, sugar, alcohol and cigarettes to boost our energy, which only adds fuel to the fire.
We need to recognise that burnout is the body’s cry for help. It is asking for time to rest and heal. In fact, the functions of healing, digestion and repair of tissues can only occur when the body is at rest. So, if we ignore the warning signs, we risk developing serious health problems.
We also need to be aware that factors such as our breathing, posture and tone of voice constantly send feedback to the brain. If the body sends stress signals through shallow breathing and tight muscles, the brain will react accordingly by feeding it more adrenaline and cortisol to boost our energy. In this way the damaging fight or flight cycle is perpetuated.
However, when we rest and calm the mind, the heart rate slows down, energy and blood is released into the digestive system, digestive juices are secreted to aid digestion and absorb nutrients, anti-inflammatories are released into the system to mop up free radicals and cells and tissues are repaired. Healing can take place and the body’s natural immunity is restored.
Breaking the cycle of negative energy
It is therefore critically important to recognise the danger of being locked in a constantly ‘wired’ state of adrenalised energy. We need to consciously and deliberately reprogramme our lifestyles to give ourselves the rest and relaxation we need to regenerate our health.
Fortunately, the body is a highly intelligent interconnected system that responds beautifully to the most natural interventions. Simple basic things work wonders. For instance:
- Start by noticing what is causing your own adrenalised state and find ways in which you can break that cycle.
- Reduce the time you spend on whatever gets you wired in the first place (that includes exposure to electronic devices – Netflix is not a healing intervention).
- Give your brain a rest from your stress by doing something that helps you to quieten your mind and become calm. This could be sitting in the sun, spending time in nature, listening to music, or a creative activity (writing, painting, cooking, making something).
- Breathing exercises are ideal for breaking a cycle of stress – even five minutes of time out to practice rhythmic breathing can make a difference.
- Exercise of any kind is beneficial, especially anything with steady and focused movement such as walking, yoga, pilates or tai chi.
- Meditation is a remarkable tool for physical and mental healing.
- Find outlets to express your feelings and emotions – laughing, crying, prayer, dancing or talking help us to release stuck emotional energy.
- Make time every day to show love and care to others – e.g. daily routines such as family meals around the table together, reading a story to your children, playing with your dog, or a phone call to a friend are simple but effective ways to relieve stress.
- Build short recovery ‘breaks’ into your daily work routine. While you may not be able to avoid stressful situations, you can plan to give yourself a mental break at regular intervals.
When you pay attention to your body and your mind, you will soon become aware of how to consciously manage your energy. It doesn’t need to take a lot of your time. Often, just a few minutes to reflect on gratitude or to practice acceptance may be all you need to switch off a cycle of negative energy.
While it is almost impossible to avoid the stresses that are part of our modern lifestyle, we can be aware of how stress impacts our physical wellbeing and implement simple solutions to reduce the damage.
Managing stress has become a critical life skill. We owe it to ourselves to learn this skill and to ensure that our children, our loved ones and our communities learn it as well. It’s an essential part of achieving better health and wellness for all.
This information is courtesy of Dr Ela Manga, a medical doctor with a special interest in mind-body medicine, energy management and burnout. She is also the founder of Breathwork Africa, an organisation that is committed to sharing the science of conscious breathing as a tool for supporting physical and emotional health.
Would you like to know more? Learn about easy breathing techniques to help reduce stress and calm the mind.
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Disclaimer: Any information contained here is merely a guideline. Always visit your healthcare practitioner for any health-related advice or diagnosis.