Managing Stress for Better Immune Health

Stress levels are currently high, for many reasons. But how does stress affect our bodies? And, more importantly, how can we nourish our own resilience?

It seems that the human body has evolved to handle stressful events of a brief nature better than those of longer duration. The classic example involves “running away from a hungry tiger.” When we are stressed, physiological changes occur that allow for brief and intense bursts of energy, such as running away from a hungry tiger. However, given that stress in our times can be an ongoing experience, few would quantify their stress at any point in time as “none at all.” This leads to a sympathetic fight-or-flight state, and not enough time  spent in a restorative parasympathetic rest-and-digest state.

What are some of the consequences of this? When undergoing psychological stress, the sympathetic state is predominant, the adrenals are releasing stress hormones and there are functional changes in our nervous system, our endocrine system and our immune system. Our immune system consists of two main branches, innate immunity which we are born with and adaptive immunity which we develop. In our innate immunity, natural killer (NK) cells, one of the main defensive immune cells, are part of our front-line defence. Studies have shown that when our stress is unmanaged, NK cells are decreased in, as are the helper T cells of our adaptive immunity. So how can we compensate for this? By taking mindful action to manage our stress response. 

The Relaxation Response

Practicing the relaxation response through stretching and breathing exercises helps support our immune system by mitigating stress-related changes. Studies have shown that practicing the relaxation response can decrease levels of inflammatory markers such as NF-kappaB and support the immune system through beneficial changes in gene expression. The relaxation response may also help to support our adaptive immune system by increasing CD4+ T cell count and activity. 


Inadequate sleep increases inflammatory markers such as CRP and can impact both the innate and adaptive branches of our immune system by decreasing overall white blood cell counts. Inadequate or restricted sleep can also decrease protective natural killer (NK) cells, as we discussed above. In this case, inflammation and stress both affect sleep, which affects stress, which further affects sleep, which significantly affects immunity. 

Dietary Supplements

Dietary supplements may also be of help in managing stress and supporting sleep. 

Folate and vitamin B12

When you’re under stress, there is added pressure on the bodily systems that rely on vitamin B12 and folic acid. You may need to consume more of these vitamins to maintain your health during times of heavy mental and physical demands.

Studies show a link between depression and low blood levels of folate and vitamin B12, which may stem from their roles in metabolising the amino acid homocysteine. You can rev-up your intake with folate-rich foods, including: 

  • lentils
  • beans
  • spinach
  • collards
  • fortified whole-grain cereals 

For a good dose of vitamin B12, focus on eating: 

  • eggs
  • dairy products
  • fish
  • shellfish
  • poultry 

Supplementation is also an effective way to increase vitamin B12 levels. B12 methylcobalamin is the biologically active form of vitamin B12, and the form most readily absorbed into the body. Quatrefolic® is also a highly bioavailable form of folate and is usually only in good quality multivitamin supplements.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” because the body synthesises it when the skin is exposed to sunlight. When your exposure to sunlight is low, your body relies more on dietary sources.

Vitamin D plays a key role in brain function. Its receptors are widespread throughout brain tissue, and are specifically designed for receiving chemical signals from vitamin D. 

It can be challenging to maintain adequate vitamin D levels through diet alone because few foods contain naturally occurring vitamin D. Those that do include: 

  • cod liver oil
  • liver
  • organ meats
  • egg yolk
  • oily fish

This is why supplementation is one of the most effective ways to maintain a healthy vitamin D intake throughout the year. Vegan Vitamin D3 is an effective and readily absorbable vitamin D supplement suitable for vegans and vegetarians.

It is important to remember that we have the ability to nourish our own resilience. There are things we can do to manage stress for better immune health. With intentional mindfulness, improved sleep, and dietary supplements to support us in these, we can cultivate a more parasympathetic state. Less time spent in a sympathetic fight-or-flight state will lead to lower stress hormones and a healthier immune system. In a time where it is becoming increasingly hard to be generous with time and effort, let’s be sure to atleast give these things to ourselves, by taking steps to stress less. Our immunes system will thank us for it.


*References available on request


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