The effect of long-term stress on the immune system

Headaches, insomnia, anorexia – chronic stress can manifest itself in many ways. The immune system also suffers when the body is under constant stress. Scientists have now found out.

Whether it’s work-related stress or problems in private life: Everyone who is constantly stressed threatens their health – in the long run. A University of Southern California study has now shown that chronic stress not only ages the immune system, but also increases the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

With age, the immune system weakens

Our immune system protects us from harmful substances and pathogens. Defense cells attack a potential pathogen and make it harmless. The innate and acquired immune systems work hand in hand.1

However, with age, the immune system weakens and pathogens find it easier to penetrate the body. The reason is both a large number of already worn white blood cells and a small number of “fresh” defense cells circulating in the blood. There are age-related symptoms such as an increased risk of pneumonia but also diseases such as cancer.2

Also interesting: How do you know if you have a weak immune system?

Stress causes the immune system to age faster

But even in middle-aged people, the so-called immune senescence is already evident. Researchers believe that chronic stress may be the cause of a prematurely aging immune system.

To verify this, the research team examined 5,744 adults over the age of 50, took blood samples and asked them about various factors of social stress. Is part of them:

  • everyday discrimination
  • stressful life events
  • lifelong discrimination
  • trauma
  • chronic stress (e.g.

Result: People who were exposed to more stress had a higher proportion of “used” white blood cells and less fresh cells. Biologically, their immune system was older. This link has also remained evident, taking into account various influencing factors such as level of education, smoking, alcohol consumption and BMI.3

Also interesting: Constant stress and mental illness can damage the heart

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Poor diet and lack of exercise increase the effect

Another result of the study: chronic stress probably leads to poorer eating habits and lack of exercise. It is well known that a balanced and healthy diet, as well as regular exercise and sports can reduce stress levels.

In addition, diet and exercise habits can have a direct effect on the development of immune cells. This is because T cells – an important part of the immune system – develop in the thymus, which lies behind the sternum. However, with increasing age, the tissue in the thyroid shrinks and is replaced by adipose tissue. There is a reduced production of immune cells. An unhealthy diet and lack of exercise can even speed up this process – a vicious circle.

Also interesting: mistletoe tea helps with stress, insomnia and heart disease

Ways to reduce chronic stress

At the same time, a healthy lifestyle can help reduce stress and strengthen the immune system. Experts therefore recommend paying attention to the following aspects:

  • get enough sleep
  • provide relaxation
  • regular physical activity
  • A high fiber diet with lots of fruits and vegetables
  • do not smoke

Applications that strengthen the immune system can also help fight premature aging. These include alternating showers and regular sauna visits.


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