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The Science Behind Stress & the Immune System


Our body is designed with a very specific stress response. It is there to handle acute and immediate stressors and give us the “superhuman strength” and energy we need to effectively out maneuver whatever situation we find ourselves in.

In order to do that, the body must decide which processes are vital to survival and which ones are not. The ones that are not vital get placed on hold until the immediate threat is handled.

This makes sense because in the grand scheme of things, the body knows that if you don’t make it out of the current situation none of those other things will matter anyway.

Two of the things that get thrown into the non-vital category are the production of white blood cells and blood flow to the digestive system.

The Stress Response

The adrenal glands manage the stress response. They are two triangular shaped glands that sit on top of each kidney.

Adrenal glands secrete different blends of adrenaline and steroid hormones one of them being cortisol. You probably have heard a lot about cortisol. It has taken the blame for the overabundance of belly fat many of us are carrying around.

Our stress response is designed for acute stressors.

The body releases stress hormones in an effort to keep us alive.

It responds to them appropriately, and once the threat is gone it returns blood flow back to the parts that were on pause.

Our stress response is not designed for chronic and repeat stressors. In today’s world, this becomes a problem because stress seems to be everywhere.

It’s easy to fall into a state of chronic stress…when that happens essential body processes suffer.

Under stress, immune suppression is caused by two main factors>

  1. Direct impact of the stress hormone to the immune system.
    When we’re stressed the immune system’s ability to fight off invaders is reduced. We become more susceptible to infections. Stress hormones suppress white blood cell production and overall immune function.
  2. Disturbance of the digestive system.
    The gastrointestinal system plays a central role in the immune system. Did you know that 80% of your immune system is in your gut? The gastrointestinal system has a huge number of immune cells that reside within it. Under stress, blood flow to the digestive system is decreased.

The gastrointestinal immune cells are known as “Peyer’s patches” and protect the mucous membranes of the small intestines against infection by releasing white blood cells (T-cells and B-cells). Peyer’s patches contain special cells called MALT and GALT as well as Immunoglobulin A (IgA). Healthy bacteria boost the function of the immune cells. Having undesirable bacteria, fungus, and virus decreases the function of the gut-immune cells.

The digestive system functions best when it can rest.  Good digestion takes time to properly churn food and extract essential nutrients from it. A healthy digestive system has the ability to decreases inflammation throughout the body and brain and boost immune function.

Happy Digesting!

Dr. Purcell
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Dr. Andrea Purcell

A trusted and well-respected Naturopathic Doctor, Dr. Purcell has been in private practice for over twenty years. Dr. Purcell is a published author and has a women’s specialty practice for hormone balancing, weight loss, mystery illness, and gastro-intestinal concerns. Dr. Purcell assists her patients by identifying the underlying cause of disease and removing obstacles that impede the body's natural ability to heal. Drugs and surgery are used as a last resort. She believes that increasing health on the inside shines through to the outside.