Christmas is over and there are just a few more days until a whole new year starts. 2020 was a hard year for so many people and it has brought about so many things for us to stress about. Stress concerning jobs: losing them, keeping them, finding them. Stress about who to see, how many to see, where to see them, how to see them. Stress about finding toilet paper — didn’t see that one coming! And now we are waiting to see what 2021 will bring us (note from the future - it got off to a bit of a rocky start but things are starting to improve!)
No matter what you have gone through this year, first, congratulate yourself for making it this far! We may not be completely finished with the global pandemic but we are getting closer to the finish line. With that in mind, we want to talk about how you can keep your immune system up through these next few months. If you are considering getting a Covid-19 vaccine (we will tell you more about that later) then it will be even more important to have a strong and healthy immune system.
This blog is centered on your immune system and how it is influenced by stress. We will also share some helpful hints on how to reduce your stress and strengthen your immune system as we head into a brand new year!
How Stress Affects Our Immune Systems
When we are stressed, our body’s immune system is weakened and its ability to fight off antigens is reduced. This makes us more susceptible to infections. Stress also increases our cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that helps to reduce or prevent bodily functions that aren’t absolutely necessary in a crisis, or a “fight or flight” situation. One of these bodily functions is the immune system. When it comes to our immune system functioning, Cortisol is responsible for lowering the number of lymphocytes (the white blood cells that fight off infection) in our bodies. This causes our immune systems to weaken.
In small doses, cortisol can boost immunity by limiting inflammation — a reaction your body has to illness or injury. The downside of this is that if we are repeatedly exposed to stress, over an extended period of time (say, going through a global pandemic), our bodies can get used to having lots of cortisol and start to think those levels are normal.
All of this causes our bodies to continue producing high levels of these stress hormones, which ends up causing more inflammation. Have you ever noticed that your low back pain seems to feel worse when you are stressed? Inflammation plays a big role in that.
So what types of things cause stress? Well, lack of social support and isolation is one key cause. In a 2005 study of college students, health psychologists Sarah Pressman, PhD, Sheldon Cohen, PhD, and other researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity and Disease, found that social isolation and feelings of loneliness each independently weakened the first year student’s immune levels. This stressful lack of social support and interaction was scientifically proven to weaken immune responses.
The Covid-19 crisis has meant that we have had to keep our distance from friends and family, limiting face to face contact with those that we would normally hang out with. In the summer it was easier to arrange outdoor get togethers and socially distanced walks. As winter approached, however, it became more challenging to maintain social networks, especially since cold weather tends to drive people indoors.
Ways To Stay Healthy:
Schedule time to connect with friends and family, either outdoors (in small, safe settings), or virtually via zoom or Facetime. Now, more than ever, it is important to maintain a sense of connection and companionship.
Schedule a weekly coffee date with a friend. Take your own coffee and meet at a park or somewhere that you can feel connected to the outdoors.
If you live in a cold climate where sitting down is not an option, go for a brisk walk outside (when the weather permits) and maybe take your coffee with you.
Join a virtual book club.
Arrange a virtual game night with friends and use identical boards.
Lack of Sleep
Did someone say Netflix binge? While staying up all night to binge watch the latest series always sounds like a good plan, it can be worse for you than you realize. At a conference for the American Academy for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) in Washington, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser of Ohio State University spoke about the effects of sleep deprivation on our bodies. “If you didn’t sleep, if you had a tired night, your IL-6 (Interleukin 6) levels are higher today”.
Interleukin 6 is a chemical that is active in inflammation and it is produced in the body wherever it finds inflammation. IL-6 triggers inflammatory and auto-immune processes that were originally designed to protect our bodies. Too much response, however, has been linked to the onset of diseases like diabetes, atherosclerosis, lupus, arthritis, anxiety, and depression.
IL-6 is an inflammatory marker (a way we can see if there is inflammation in the body) and has even been used as a marker for severe Covid-19 infections. IL-6 also plays a major role in the expression of CRP (C-Reactive Protein) which is another inflammatory marker.
The Importance Of Sleep
How do we prevent our IL-6 levels from getting higher? Make sure you get a good night’s sleep. When we sleep, research has shown that our brain clears out harmful toxins. During sleep, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain increases dramatically. This fluid washes away harmful protein waste that builds up in between our brain cells throughout our day. Basically our brain acts like a dishwasher overnight and cleans all of the cells, flushing away all the harmful waste, getting us ready for a new day. This helps to reduce inflammation and keeps our immune system strong and healthy.
Ways to stay healthy:
Make sure you get between 7–8 hours of quality sleep each night. Some fitness trackers like Apple Watches and Fitbits can even give you a sleep rating each night so you can see how you are doing.
Establish good sleep hygiene. Cooler temperatures, a nice set of comfy PJs, no screens 1 hour before bed time, these are all healthy ways to commit to a good sleep routine.
Reduce caffeine intake after 12pm and limit evening alcohol consumption.
Try to stick to the same times for going to bed and waking up, even on weekends. Sadly, while you can binge Netflix, you can’t binge sleep and still get the full benefits.
Taking care of others. One thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted is the role of women as caregivers, and the workload that so many have taken on. With restrictions on allowing people into homes, many women have taken on the task of caring for aging parents themselves. Add homeschooling to the list and you can see how many could be headed for burnout.
Janice Kiekolt-Glaser has also done some fascinating research studying people who are caring for family members with dementia. This type of care is considered to be a chronic stressor. When people spend so much time focusing on the needs of another, often important social activities, social networks, and vital friendships fall by the wayside.
Kiekolt-Glaser studied the time it took to heal standardized wounds and found that it took an average of 24% longer for caregiver wounds to heal compared to well-matched controls. She also found that caregivers’ antibody responses to influenza vaccines were substantially poorer. This is particularly interesting at a time when vaccinating a large portion of the population is so important for the control of the novel Coronavirus.
Ways to stay healthy
Make sure that you schedule in self care time each day. See if a family member or trusted friend could watch your loved one for that time.
Schedule self care for after your loved one has gone to sleep, or before they wake up in the morning. Getting up earlier for a 10 minute stretch, or a cup of coffee as you enjoy the morning silence can help.
Call family and friends together. Even if it is just once every other week, making time to connect with friends is important to help maintain perspective.
Schedule fun self care activities that you can do with the person you are taking care of. Do face masks together or have a pajama and movie day.
Mental Health Resources
If you or a loved one are feeling overwhelmed there are several resources available so you don’t have to feel like you are on your own during these difficult times. The NAMI Helpline is a free service that provides information and resource referrals to help support those who might be struggling with anxiety or depression, as well as other mental health conditions. Their helpline is 1–800–950-NAMI (6264) and they are open Mondays to Fridays from 10am to 6pm. There is also a crisis text line available 24/7. Text: HELLO to 741741. Help is available.
With the pandemic still very much in our midst, it is important for us to keep our immune systems healthy. When your immune system is compromised it can lead to inflammatory conditions and issues like back pain.