In a stress spiral? An expert reveals how to strengthen your immune system
As well as saving your sanity, counteracting the effects of stress will help you to care for your immune system. Here are the hacks and snacks to prioritise.
As a lecturer in immunology at University of Sussex and a fitness coach, Dr Macciochi can advise on this hot topic from the inside-out. Her recipes on social media also embrace a daily eating pattern and not a one-off immune-boosting supplement. She stresses that taking care of your immune system is for life, not just for Covid as it’s entwined with how we age. It’s made not born so we can affect it positively. So if you want to live long and healthily it pays, immunity-wise, to play the long-game.
What is the stress spiral
The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly been stressful on all of us and the numbers of people reporting high levels of stress-related, poor mental wellbeing have sharply elevated, according to Office of National Statistics. Almost a year into a global pandemic, perhaps no surprise there.
Our capacity for stress has been running at higher than normal for a prolonged time Dr Jenna Macciochi
The causes of stress are multifactorial, not least triggered by the ongoing uncertainty and major life disruptions, and both make for a breeding ground for stress and anxiety. Our capacity has been running at higher than normal for a prolonged time. And that’s on top of our usual modern life which for many of us was already taking its toll. The result is that we may be feeling mentally exhausted and depleted of all resources.
The issue is that we only have one stress response irrespective of the trigger. It is designed to motivate us to safety in the short term, but not to be continually ‘on’. Here lies the issue for our immune system; cumulative or chronic stress (if we don’t manage it) affects us very differently to a brief stress – which can actually have a positive effect.
A little short-term stress (winning a race or trying to impress someone, for example) can keep us on our toes and be motivating for us, as well as for our immune system; mobilising immune cells into action, making sure we are well protected. But when this stress chemistry (cortisol in particular) is being released over a prolonged period, it can suppress our immune system, leave us more vulnerable to infection and increase our risk for certain chronic inflammatory diseases.
Ground down by groundhog day
Chronic stress, as well as negatively affecting our mental and physical health can lead to self-perpetuating cycles that lead to more and more stress. Humans have a tendency towards rumination – going over the details of a stressful event but without changing anything for the better. This robs us of our mental peace in the present. At the same time, our stress cup starts to overflow if we don’t take care to empty it. This is the slippery slope to burnout.
The trickle-down effect
Then there is what I call the trickle-down effect: We engage in poorer health behaviours when continually stressed and anxious: eat badly, exercise less, sleep poorly, drink more alcohol – all of which are detrimental to our immune system. Recognising when you are moving in that direction can be an important part of moving away from the pattern.
Check your stress container
Helpful coping mechanisms act like a tap that lets stress flow out from our stress container Dr Jenna Macciochi
The stress container helps us understand how we experience our stress levels and how best to address them. The size of your stress container reflects how vulnerable you are to stress. Factors like your genetics, early life events, unique life experiences and your environment all impact how large or small it is.
At some point, all of us will suffer stress in a way that exceeds our stress container. Self-care, during times of high stress, is essential to prevent your stress container from overflowing when life keeps filling it up.
There are many different tools and suggestions online to help us empty our stress container before it overflows. Helpful coping mechanisms act like a tap that lets stress flow out from our stress container. Some of us might need to engage in more active ways to relieve stress, particularly at times when there may be more stresses going on than usual, so our container doesn’t overflow.
3 hacks to stop the stress overflow
There are three types of tools we can use to do this. Firstly, those we can do in the moment – smaller, portable, so-called real-time tools that help you move back to the centre of the stress continuum just when you need it most.
I have always found that attempting to meditate in a stressful moment might just be the thing that tips me over the edge! Dr Jenna Macciochi
1Slow down your breathing
I have always found that attempting to meditate in a stressful moment might just be the thing that tips me over the edge. The most immediate tool is just breathing. Simply slowing down your exhale sends a signal to your brain that you are calm and you don’t require the stress chemistry that is currently pumping through your body.
2Widen your focus
Having a narrow focus, for example staring at a screen, isn’t conducive to relaxation. In that stressful moment, widen the gaze to a panoramic vision. Even better, combine that with a walk. But it can be as simple as to go to a window and look far away. Again, this sends a signal to the brain that you’re relaxed.
3Adapt with action
Finally, we can use hormesis to encourage our bodies to adapt to the stress response. The key here is to put ourselves into stressful situations in a controlled and short-term way, like intense exercise, cold-water swimming or even using a sauna. But these are probably most effective when your stress container is not already overflowing.
Futureproof your immune system
We can also futureproof ourselves against stress by engaging in mindfulness, meditation, journaling and making time for social connection (even it if is virtual).
It can be difficult to get out of a rut. Many of us instinctively beat ourselves up for engaging in poor health behaviours when stressed. But research suggests we’re more likely to bounce back if we’re kind rather than critical of ourselves. And it’s also associated with improvements to our immune system.
The stress of eating food devoid of joy and social connection – ‘eating clean’, as if your life depends on it – is definitely not helpful for immunity. Immunity: The Science Of Staying Well
Food first: Devise a diet pattern
Despite the nutrition field moving on, many of us still believe that specific nutrients should be consumed for specific health benefits. For example, with nutrition to support our immune system, many of us think of the scramble for vitamin C at the first sign of cold. But overall diet patterns, consistency rather than focusing on individual nutrients, are actually a better (and perhaps more simplistic) indicator of the overall healthfulness of our diet.
This is because our food intake is multi-dimensional and mostly we eat food not individual nutrients. Anti-inflammatory eating patterns are the most effective strategy to furnish us with our day-to-day nutrition but also reduce the risk of chronic disease.
What is a healthful diet pattern? Put simply, it’s any healthy diet pattern you can sustain long term. There is no single prescriptive one. They can be cultural or clinically developed eg: the DASH diet. But the Mediterranean diet is perhaps the most well studied. An overall eating pattern like this would reduce your risk of nutrient deficiencies, support your gut health and stave off risk from chronic inflammatory diseases.
Start at the top with oral health
The mouth is the start of our digestive tract which is home to 70% of your immune system Dr Jenna Macciochi
Yes, oral health is the new gut health and I do think this is something to be happy about. The mouth is actually the start of our digestive tract which is home to 70 per cent of your immune system. The gut also houses the largest microbial ecosystem in the body (but not the only one), known as the microbiota. These ‘good’ bugs help educate and train your immune system, ensuring that it is functioning correctly.
The oral microbiome is much less spoken about, but the mouth is also home to a diverse collection of good bugs. And since the mouth is also upstream of the gut and the airways (which also has its own microbiota and is an area vulnerable to infections), the oral microbiota really sets the stage for the health of everything downstream.
When we look to oral care first, we’re quite literally halting disease in its track Dr Jenna Macciochi
Studies show a clear link between oral disease and systemic disease including infection, autoimmunity and heart disease. That means when we look to oral care first, we’re quite literally halting disease in its track. While brushing and flossing twice a day is critical, our number-one defence tool is to use gentle oral care products.
I’ve recently started working with Zendium to help us understand how ingredients with a prebiotic benefit, particularly in mouth care, can be used to help improve the balance of bacteria, in turn strengthening one of our body’s greatest defence system: the oral microbiome.
As an initial step, you need to cease killing microbes in your mouth and nurture a healthy ecosystem. Now, you might have experimented with taking probiotics for your gut health, but these do not work in the mouth. So it’s not as simple as adding more beneficial microbes but, instead, cultivating them through prebiotics – the ingredients that support and nurture good bacteria.
That's why I like Zendium Complete Protection Toothpaste which cares for the oral cavity through the actions of natural active enzymes and proteins shown to support balance in the oral microbiome.
Eat for immunity
Jenna shares recipes from her social…
Bonus recipe… Immune Nourishing Seasonal Soup
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The views expressed on these pages are the views of the cited experts only and do not necessarily represent the views of Wellness Edit. Please always get a second opinion where specific medical advice is required.
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