Psychoneuroimmunology: A Big Word for Common Sense

by Dr. Thor Bergersen

Common sense tells us that when we’re stressed, we’re more likely to get sick. But is this really true? And if so, why?

It is true. Humans, like all organisms, require a certain amount of care. We need to eat, sleep, exercise and have some down time. Sounds simple, right? If we get enough rest, use our muscles and get our blood circulating while finding time to think and process information, then our immune systems will find the time to protect us against invading pathogens like bacteria and viruses. Our cell repair mechanisms, always alert, will do their job consistently and accurately. The inflammation response in our bodies will wait quietly for a reason to ignite, but because we take care of our bodies and minds, it will not, leaving us free from pain.

We all eat, of course, but not necessarily what our bodies need. We usually don’t get enough rest, and exercise is something we want to do, but often can’t find the time. On top of that, we find ourselves trying to manage situations in which we lack control. Presented with conflicting or confusing instructions, we must navigate through fog, casting about for solutions to problems we don’t fully understand. Often, there is little if any guidance, because to suggest that the one giving us ambiguous instructions, be they boss, teacher or generic authority figure, is in some way incompetent would make the situation worse, either by reprimand or retribution.

When we are not rested or well nourished and our bodies are sedentary, humans are more likely to gain weight. Excess adipose tissue, or fat, can cause an increase in our bodies’ inflammatory response, and can result in something called metabolic syndrome, which can in turn cause diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

When we’re stressed by life or work circumstances, our “fight or flight” response is activated, resulting in elevated stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. While this activation of our sympathetic nervous system is adaptive for brief periods of time, such as escaping a dangerous situation, it is not good for our bodies over the course of weeks or months. When chronically stressed, our immune systems malfunction, mistaking normal cells for intruders and missing others that would, under “normal” conditions, be neutralized.

We are not meant to endure long term, unrelenting stress. We were not designed for it, and the history of humankind prior to the industrialized age would indicate that we avoided it. Sure, there were and still are wars, famine and disease. But I would argue that the demands placed on most of us, coupled with societal and legal constraints on our behavior have resulted in an epidemic of stress related conditions, including depression and anxiety. Certain traits associated with distractibility, impulsivity and inattention are exacerbated by stress, making impairment more evident.

When you take care of yourself, you’re less vulnerable to stress. With adequate sleep, a healthy diet and regular exercise, your body and mind will be stronger, able to fend off disease and angry bosses. Also, getting treatment for depression, anxiety or ADHD can stop the vicious cycle wherein stress exacerbates symptoms, which then increases vulnerability to stress.

We can’t avoid stress, but we can train our bodies and minds to resist it simply by practicing self care. Armed with rest, a healthy diet and physical fitness, we can do battle with each day’s demons while simultaneously maintaining a strong immune system.