How Stress Impacts Your Immune system

Let’s face it, we’re all a little stressed right now. 2020 has been a hard year on many, many levels. As Covid cases rise, our lives, schedules, and holiday plans are impacted. More importantly our health and livelihoods are threatened. That creates a lot of anxiety and worry. This is also a time when our immune health is essential, yet as a double-2020-whammy, this added stress weakens our immune system. Ugh! What to do?

It’s time to reach deep into the toolbox for the tools to calm your nervous system and strengthen your immune system. Let’s discuss the immune and gut relationship first and then I’ll give some tips for keeping calm and staying well.

When feeling stressed, anxious, worried, sad, and losing sleep your stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) elevate. These stress hormones decrease your immune response by lowering the number and function of your immune cells, including an important immune cell called secretory IgA (sIgA).  sIgA is my favorite immune cell.  Let me explain why.

The Guards at the Gate of an Immune System

sIgA is the main immune cell found in the protective mucous membranes of your gut, mouth, nose, and lungs, where a lot of immune activity takes place. sIgA is one of the first immune cells that a virus or bacteria meets. Think of sIgA as the frontline defense, like a line of guards at the gate of your “castle”. In this metaphor your castle is your blood stream since once something passes through the lining of your gut or respiratory tract it ends up in your blood stream. One of sIgA’s most important jobs is to recognize and grab the invader (virus or bacteria) and alert the rest of the immune team. Picture any movie or show with a castle like Monty Phyton or Game of Thrones. There is always a line of guards at the gate or wall monitoring for incoming invaders. When an invasion occurs, those frontline guards initiate defense of the gate and they tell the guards inside to get ready for battle. Their presence and strength are crucial. If your guards (sIgA) are on a break or at the brothel, there is no one defending your body!

Not only does sIgA alert the other guards they also fight viruses by:

  • Trapping the virus in the mucus to be excreted (think about blowing your nose – you are getting something out),
  • Blocking the virus from binding to cells of the gut or lung lining, and
  • Reducing the virus’s energy source so its less harmful.

Strengthen your sIgA Guards

I see sIgA low on stool testing all the time. Fortunately, we have great strategies for increasing it:

  • Taking probiotics especially Saccharomyces Boulardii, a strain of beneficial yeast.
  • Eating prebiotic fibers which are found in common foods such as onions, garlic, root veggies, lentils, jicama, apples, pears, plantains, green bananas, and asparagus. Please visit our blog for some simple recipes using prebiotic foods. Plus, prebiotic supplements such as inulin, partially hydrolyzed guar gum, citrus pectin, FOS, and glucomannan. (Caveat, if you experience a lot of gas or bloating, I don’t recommend prebiotic supplements as they may make you feel worse.)
  • Supplementing with Vitamins A and D. Cod liver oil is a great source of Vitamin A or take 3,500 – 5,000 IUs per day of retinol. We recommend 5,000 IUs of Vitamin D per day; however, if your blood vitamin D level is below 30 you may need more to pull out of the deficiency.
  • Boosting immunoglobulins from dietary sources, such as colostrum powder or bone broth.

Stress – Calm your Cortisol to Strengthen your sIgA Guards

Remember, cortisol from stress lowers sIgA, so finding a way to balance your body’s stress response also increases sIgA. I know, managing stress is hard to do right now when it is pouring out from every crevice of our lives. But to boost our immune system and general health we must keep trying! Here are a few more ideas or tools to counter-balance stress for your toolbox:

  • Breathe intentionally – Inhale for a count of 4 through your nose. Exhale for a count of 8 through your mouth. Simple, right? Then make it deeper and breathe from your belly, not your chest. That simple action decreases cortisol and sends a calming signal to your brain and your parasympathetic nervous system.
  • EFT Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique) – This deserves a whole separate blog post. In short, tapping tells your brain to turn off the fear and panic reaction. You simply tap specific points on your head and neck with your fingers while repeating a specific phrase related to your worry. My friend Amy Ash, an EFT practitioner, helped me use EFT to overcome my fear of snakes. It totally helped; I still don’t want to see a snake while hiking but I’m not as panicked and fearful as I was. Basically, it took the edge off. Here are some resources:
  • Grounding Visualization – Sit in a comfortable and quiet place (or it can be while walking, I do this while walking my dog some mornings).
    • 1) Name all the challenging and troubling emotions, thoughts, and worries you are feeling. For example, it could be isolation, sickness, the coronavirus itself, injustice, fear, back pain, etc. Name as many things as you can. Then visualize letting them go in a sweeping release with a deep exhale. Visualize that release as something tangible, such as a drain, a running river, letting go of a balloon and watching it fly away, or adding compost into the ground to be turned into something beneficial.
    • 2) Next think of all the feelings, emotions, and actions you want. Examples are health, togetherness, justice, love, hope, optimism, peace, money in the bank, safety for your family and community, or unity and resolution for our country. Let those words and emotions fill you up until you feel calm or happy. Then visualize spreading them to your loved ones, neighborhood, community, the entire world, or whatever feels right but spread it someway. This exercise has helped me immensely these last couple of months. I am still using it daily.
  • Spend time outside – nature is an amazing healer. Take it slower outside, listen to the birds, really look at the trees and the plants. Follow your children’s lead here; they always know how to tap in.
  • Herbal adaptogens and magnesium glycinate – These physically lower cortisol and quiet the stress response to help sleep and reduce anxiety. If you need a recommendation from Fullscript let us know. We can help you find something specific for your body and mind.
  • Sleep Stories on the Calm App – this has become a favorite part of my day. Thanks to my friend Narissa for recommending it. Calm is an app for download for your phone. If you subscribe you have access to their sleep stories. Each are 20-40 minutes long and they are lovely, narrated, calming stories purposely created to lull you to sleep. The painter Bob Ross is on there, its just him talking through a painting class…very, very calming. (I also recommend watching Bob Ross painting on PBS, it is like a natural Valium.)
  • Stretching – Stand up and stretch, especially if you find yourself sitting a lot. Stretching lets your muscles release tension that might be building up without you even knowing it. Reach up to the sky, bend forward toward the ground. Twist side to side.  Don’t forget to stretch your neck and shoulders.  Do this with your intentional breathing!

I hope these tips help you find a resource or two. We all need a little extra love and support these days.

Wishing you peace, love, health, safety, and hope this season,



Disclaimer: Nutrition therapy is not intended as a diagnosis, treatment, prescription, or cure for any disease, or as a substitute for medical care. Jen Marshall and Stacy St Germain are not licensed medical providers. Nutrition plans are not intended as a substitution for traditional medical care, nor should be interpreted as medical advice, but instead is an adjunctive and supportive therapy.