Stress on the Immune System - A contributing factor to my Chronic Illness of CFS / ME
As most things associated with CFS / ME some of the details are very technical, but I shall endeavour to simplify the details without detriment to the final article. I therefore apologize at the start for the amount of technical jargon contained within.
A common reoccurring theme with sufferers of CFS / ME is the occurrence of stress and anxiety, some believe it to be the main trigger event that started their illness although research shows it to be one of many underlying causes. In my own case, as a Primary School Teacher, I suffered with long periods of stress and anxiety over a period of some 19 years with frequent bouts of viral infections which at the time I put down to one of the hazards of working in close contact with young children on a daily basis. This ultimately culminated with my crash back in September last year and then being diagnosed with CFS / ME shortly afterwards.
The Effects of Stress on our Immune System
In this section I will briefly explain some of the facts associated with stress on the Immune System and later on in the article go into more detail where I Consider them to be relevant.
Stress affects the hormone Cortisol produced by the adrenal glands. In small quantities cortisol is beneficial, due to it's anti-inflammatory properties, it speeds tissue repair and helps to control excess immune cell production. But continual stress levels raises the cortisol levels and this then slows down the production of something known as " prostaglandins" which support the immune function.
Prostaglandins inhibit " thick " blood, dilate blood vessels and are anti- inflammatory so slowing down this production allows for inflamations and immune suppression.
During periods of stress these raised levels of cortisol cause the immune system cells to disappear from the blood, part of the immune system most at risk from these raised levels of cortisol are the Natural Killer Cells. Therefore the efficiency of the immune system functions plummet and you are left open to attack from various infections ( typical CFS/ME symptoms)
Excessive stress, like many " perfectionist , achiever types " suffer from, has a detrimental effect on the optimal functioning of our immune systems. It literally is the final straw that’s brings everything crashing down around us.
For a little more detail please read on……
Stress and Adrenals
Stress effects the adrenal glands among other things. It is what the adrenals glands are designed to do they are the body's safety mechanism to help deal with stress from whatever the source being environmental, physical, psychological, emotional, infections etc and survive. The adrenals produce a number of different hormones that influence most of the major processes of the body.
The importance of Adrenal Gland Hormones
They affect the utilization of fats and carbohydrates , the conversion of fats and proteins into energy, the distribution of stored fats, normal blood sugar regulation and proper cardiovascular and gastrointestinal functions. The anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant hormones secreted by the adrenals helps to reduce the negative and allergic reactions to drugs, alcohol, foods and environmental allergies
Adrenal Response to Stress
If you are under stress at work the normal function of the adrenals often known as " fight or flight " response is increased, adrenal hormones are released into the body which causes your heart to beat faster, your breathing increases and cortisol levels rise which increases your available energy. Muscle tension increases and your digestion shuts down as it's not required in a " fight or flight " situation. ( more on this and how this effects IBS on a later blog ). Everything is prioritized to help you survive.
For most people this response is stifled in their normal working environment where " fight or Flight " would not be acceptable ( this is a problem ) The alarm stage which is our response to stress is usually short lived lasting a few minutes to a few hours, this is then followed by a period of calm and recovery lasting 24 to 48 hours. During the recovery stage hormone levels drop, and you feel tired but what happens if the stress doesn't go away, your body continues to fight the stressor long after the initial effects with the hormone cortisol being continued to be produced by the adrenal glands.
Cortisol the Immune Suppressor
Cortisol is a powerful anti- inflammatory hormone that in small quantities helps tissue repair, but in larger quantities depresses your bodies immune defenses system and reduces the rate at which lymphocytes ( immune cells ) multiply and accelerate their programmed cell death to protect the body from this over reaction.
When cortisol is elevated during the alarm reaction response there is almost complete disappearance of lymphocytes from the blood. This is why your immune system is suppressed when you are under stress and possibly accounts for the frequent bouts of viral infections I experienced when I was teaching. On the other hand when circulating cortisol is too low it's moderating effect on the immune reactions is lost and the lymphocytes circulate in excess and this creates more inflammation.
So you can see just how delicately balanced the immune system is and to work correctly all parts of the system must be in perfect balance.
When adrenal glands become fatigued in response to constant stress response reactions, the levels of cortisol and other hormones fall to low levels which bring on it's own set of problems, one major symptom being , you guessed it, " fatigue ". I recently had my adrenals checked and unsurprisingly the results confirmed that my adrenal glands are suffering from fatigue. I am currently taking adrenal supplements as part of my nutritional support programme.
Stress, Prostaglandins and Essential Fatty Acids
Essential fatty acids need to be derived from food because we don't make them ourselves. Hormone like cellular messengers called Prostaglandins are derived from fatty acids. Cells respond to their environment through the actions of prostaglandins. They are short lived and our diet is notably lacking in these good fats since for some time it has been believed by some that all fats are bad fats. Providing the necessary raw materials, for prostaglandin production is a nutritional issue especially the omega 3 fatty acids.
Good prostaglandins inhibit " thick " blood, dilate blood vessels, are anti- inflammatory, control cell proliferation and enhance the immune function. This positive action is inhibited by nutritional short comings, viruses, bad fats, sugar and here it is again " heavy metals ".
Bad prostaglandins do the opposite , they promote " thick " blood, constrict blood vessels, are pro- inflammatory, produce cell proliferation and suppress the immune system.
The Eicosapentaenoic acid ( EPA ) is a Omega 3 fatty acid which inhibits the negative action of the bad prostaglandins and promotes the production of good prostaglandins. Stress negatively affects prostaglandin production. Cortisol, produced by the adrenal glands when under stress, suppresses prostaglandin production and this ultimately leads to the shutting down of our immune system with all the consequences we CFS / ME sufferers are aware of.
So I hope through all the technical information you can see just how detrimental acute stress is to our systems and in order to get on the road to recovery we must all get stress under control. This research has explained to me why there are so many different approaches being used to manage stress levels. Meditation, Yoga, EFT, Lightning Process, Mindfulness are all ways to help us overcome stress. Without getting stress under control I fear there is little chance of a quick recovery from the position we find ourselves in. I have already adopted a number of these approaches in my efforts to get on top of the stress factors that have influenced my life for far too long. I feel as if I am at last getting to grips with a major cause of my condition but I realize there is much more still to be done before my recovery is fully underway.