Managing Stress for Better Immune Health

Stress Immune System

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 defense. Studies have shown that when our stress is unmanaged, NK cells are decreased in, as are the helper T cells of our adaptive immunity.[1] 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.[1] 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.[2] Inadequate or restricted sleep can also decrease protective natural killer (NK) cells, as we discussed above.[3] 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. Ashwagandha root, also known as Withania somnifera, is traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine as Rasayana, a rejuvenating tonic.[3,4] Ashwagandha is an adaptogen that may help increase energy and resistance to stress, and is also used as a sleep aid.[5] Melatonin helps reduce the time it takes to fall asleep in those who fall asleep slowly,[6] a more common issue in stressful times. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and L-theanine help to promote temporary relaxation,[7,8] and may also help to support healthy sleep. In addition, 5-HTP can help to promote healthy mood balance as well as supporting healthy sleep.[9,10]

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 this time of giving, let’s be sure to give to ourselves, as well, by taking steps to stress less. Our immune system will thank us for it.



[1] Bhasin MK, Dusek JA, Chang BH, et al. Relaxation response induces temporal transcriptome changes in energy metabolism, insulin secretion and inflammatory pathways [published correction appears in PLoS One. 2017 Feb 21;12 (2):e0172873]. PLoS One. 2013; 8(5):e62817.

[2] Besedovsky L, Lange T, Haack M. The Sleep-Immune Crosstalk in Health and Disease. Physiological Reviews. 2019; 99(3):1325-1380.

[3] Sukh Dev. Prime Ayurvedic Plant Drugs. Tunbridge Wells (UK): Anshan; 2005.

[4] Upton R, editor. American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and Therapeutic Compendium: Ashwagandha Root (Withania somnifera) – Standards of Analysis, Quality Control, and Therapeutics. Santa Cruz (CA): American Herbal Pharmacopoeia; 2000.

[5] Winston D, Maimes S. Adaptogens: Herbs for strength, stamina and stress relief. Rochester (VT): Healing Arts Press; 2007.

[6] van Geijlswijk IM, Korzilius HP, Smits MG. The use of exogenous melatonin in delayed sleep phase disorder: a meta-analysis. Sleep. 2010; 33(12):1605-1614.

[7] Abdou AM, Higashiguchi S, Horie K, et al. Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans. Biofactors. 2006; 26(3):201-8.

[8] Hidese S, Ogawa S, Ota M, et al. Effects of L-Theanine Administration on Stress-Related Symptoms and Cognitive Functions in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Nutrients. 2019; 11(10):2362.

[9] Pöldinger W, Calanchini B, Schwarz W. A functional-dimensional approach to depression: serotonin deficiency as a target syndrome in a comparison of 5-hydroxytryptophan and fluvoxamine. Psychopathology. 1991; 24(2):53-81.

[10] Soulairac A, Lambinet H. [Clinical studies of the effect of the serotonin precursor, L-5hydroxytryptophan, on sleep disorders]. Schweizerische Rundschau für Medizin Praxis. 1988; 77(34a):19-23 (in French).