We’re under a statewide stay-at-home order at least until May 4. Because our center is closed, we cannot offer you recovery and health services as usual. This strange situation, as terrible as it is, gives me the opportunity to try something new on this blog. For the next two months, I will be providing the most trustworthy and practical information I can find on the human immune system. All healthcare professionals agree on the eight fundamentals of a healthy immune system. So I intend to look at one of these fundamentals each week for the next couple months. Since stress is one of those fundamentals, and April is Stress Awareness Month, I am kicking off this two-month exploration with a look at stress and your immune system.
Stress and Your Immune System
Research has proved that stress can reduce your immune response. In 2008 a psychologist and an immunologist reported on an array of experiments to the American Psychological Association. They gave flu shots to a group of people who were caring for chronically ill spouses or parents, assuming that such caregivers are under considerable stress. To a group who were not caregivers, they gave the same shots. Then they measured the resulting antibodies in the blood of each group. The result: the bodies of only 38% of the caregivers produced adequate antibodies in response to the vaccine. Among the control group, 66% produced adequate levels.
The researchers performed study after study among caregivers, all showing similar results. But caregivers weren’t the only group they studied. They also studied the ability of dental students to recover from minor mouth wounds, both right before exams and during summer vacation. The summer wounds healed two to eight days faster than the ones inflicted just before exams.
The Relaxation Response Reduces Stress
Stress, then, reduces or weakens your immune response. By definition, relieving stress strengthens it. How do you relieve stress when you’re caring for a family, confined to your house, and waiting for Covid-19 to arrive? You can’t do much about the sources of the stress, but you can affect your body’s response to them. Just like it has a stress response, your body has a relaxation response, and research has found ways to tap into it.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (part of the NIH) described a number of ways to induce a relaxation response. Five of them looked promising to me for someone who might be confined to home.
1. Autogenic Training
Autogenic training is a popular technique for dealing with social anxiety disorder. But it can work for general relaxation, too. To do it, you learn to concentrate on sensations such as warmth or heaviness in particular parts of your body. VeryWellMind has a web page that explains how to do it.
Biofeedback teaches you how to relax by showing you the activity of a bodily function (e.g., heart rate, muscle tension, brain waves). When you can monitor a function, you can eventually control it. Biofeedback requires an electronic device, of which there are many on the market. One of them has been approved by the FDA. The Mayo Clinic offers a comprehensive look at biofeedback.
3. Deep Breathing
You can achieve a surprising amount of relaxation just by breathing mindfully. WebMD has a good overview of deep breathing and how to do it.
4. Guided Imagery
To use guided imagery, you imagine a pleasant image and focus on it. You can do it with a professional audio recording or with your own imagination. VeryWellMind has a good overview and some instruction.
5. Progressive Relaxation
In progressive relaxation, you tighten and then relax different muscle groups. WebMD offers a web page that explains how to do it. It takes 10 to 20 minutes.
I have included a link to a trustworthy website for each of these techniques. You may also want to look at an article that was published on Huffpost in 2013, “20 Scientifically Backed Ways to De-Stress Right now.” For each of the suggestions the article makes (e.g., “go for a 10-minute walk,” “put on some music,” “eat a banana”), it provides links to the scientific proof.
Get control of your stress and you’ve taken the first step to strengthen your immune system. Next week, we’ll look at diet.