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Impacts of Stress, Sleep, and Loneliness on Immune and Mental Health

According to researchers from Rice University, chronic stress (that takes place over several weeks), disrupted sleep, and loneliness “are three factors that can seriously compromise aspects of the immune system that make people more susceptible to viruses if exposed.“

The impact of Stress, Loneliness and Poor  Sleep on your Immune system.

Stress, loneliness/isolation, and poor sleep “can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to viral respiratory infections” by promoting an over-response of pro-inflammatory cytokine production that “can generate sustained upper respiratory infection symptoms.” Overactive immune response “can be deadly and was associated with pneumonia from two earlier coronaviruses, MERS and SARS.”

This news is a bit of a conundrum as we face the global pandemic and are constantly being bombarded with fear, negative news from the media, news of the stock market being in a steep decline, and are strongly encouraged (or required in some areas) to stay home and avoid contact with other people to stop the spread of the virus. While social isolation may help prevent the further spread of the virus, it may cause negative emotions or a depressed mental state that can weaken our immune systems.

Less social? Are you at greater risk of infections?

According to researchers, healthy individuals who are less social are more likely to get sick and experience worse symptoms when exposed to the cold virus than people who spend more time socializing around others. On the other hand, researchers say that extroverted people (who have an increased likelihood of being in contact with more “germs”) may have a more favourable immune response due to the mechanisms by which positive emotions buffer against stressors.

The Stress connection 

It is well-researched that chronic (or repeated) stress changes brain structure and function. This persistent stress puts individuals at risk for significant physiological and psychological problems, as it is a major trigger for perpetual inflammation in the body and brain. Repeated stress – and subsequent inflammatory cytokines – cause the blood-brain barrier to become permeable to those circulating pro-inflammatory cytokines, allowing them to enter the brain and adversely affecting brain regions associated with motivation, mood, and mental agility.  

Sleep and Immunity 

Furthermore, lack of sleep and/or poor sleep quality suppress the immune system, making an individual more likely to catch a cold or virus. Alcohol misuse, stressful jobs, poor diet, lack of exercise, and psychological stressors all have detrimental effects on sleep quality.

How to combat stress in these times

A recent neuroimaging study published in late February of this year revealed that daily meditation might slow brain aging. Meditation is another method for lowering stress, worry, and overthinking – especially during these stressful and uncertain times – thereby helping reduce inflammation that greatly interacts with and influences the immune system. Staying connected with friends and family through video communication (e.g., Skype or FaceTime) may be very helpful to minimize perceived social isolation and decrease stress levels.

Finding creative ways to stay active and keep exercising while respecting social distancing during this pandemic is important to support overall cardiometabolic health and the brain and mental health. A new study provides evidence that cardiorespiratory exercises, such as brisk walking, running, and biking, are associated with maintaining brain function, particularly by increasing (and/or decelerating decline of) grey matter volume in brain tissue, “having a positive impact on cognitive function” and “protective against aging-related cognitive decline.

 One hundred fifty minutes of moderate regular exercise per week continues to be the recommendation, and while most gyms are closed right now, getting outside in nature for long walks, running, biking in non-crowded areas, and/or doing at-home workouts using bodyweight and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) exercises are all creative and effective ways to reach that target goal.

Tips to maintaining cellular health 

Maintaining strong cellular health is particularly vital right now. In addition to immune-supportive nutrient supplementation like elderberry, zinc, and vitamin C, micronutrients and herbs that help decrease stress, enhance mood, and support brain health are important to support a healthy immune system. Vitamin D, phosphatidylserine, choline, 5-HTP, saffron extract, B vitamins, GABA, lemon balm, and L-theanine, are several of many to have beneficial effects on mood, stress, sleep, and cognitive function.

Now more than ever, encourage patients to maintain a healthy diet rich in vegetables and fibre, practice good sleep and personal hygiene, decrease alcohol consumption, manage stress levels, stop smoking, and maintain a healthy weight. Even if patients don’t have access to fresh produce, frozen vegetables and fruits are better options than canned, packaged or processed foods.