In times of stress, we tend to get sick often.
We feel weak, tired and although we seem to do everything to support our health, we catch a cold or develop more serious diseases.
This is the case especially when Cortisol levels remain high for an extended period of time. This chronic stress is the trigger for development of many diseases, such as cancer and autoimmune diseases. Knowing the cause of this is the first step of fighting these diseases and speed up recovery.
Make sure to check out the other parts of this series as well:
By the way, the countdown to the new fat loss program has started! May 2nd marks the start of 8 weeks to get you ready for summer. Make sure to sign up to get your nutrition and fitness plans on April 30th! This challenge is for FREE and I guess it will be the last one too …
Cortisol and our Immune system
Researchers have found a long time ago that Cortisol suppresses our entire immune system.
As I explained in the first part of the series, there are several parts of our immune system. One of them is more important to fight bacteria by producing antibodies but at the same time it is also responsible for development of autoimmune diseases. In this case, your immune system attacks your body and breaks down muscle tissue, connective tissue, joints and bones. To this day, Cortisol as medication is the only way to fight autoimmune diseases.
However, Cortisol does not only suppress the part of the immune system that produced antibodies. The other part of our immune system is located in our entire body: Skin, mucous membrane, digestive system and many more. They are crucial to fight virus, certain types of bacteria, parasites and lastly, detect cancer cells.
Why does Cortisol suppress our Immune system?
As I explained before, Cortisol is vital in stressful situations. It enables our body to focus on what is most important to solve the stressful situation.
In fact, it has been shown that short-term stress actually increases immune function. Think of it as a short blast of immune-system stimulation, used by the body to “wake up” existing immune-system cells.
Our body needs fast supply of energy, thus glucose is set free from our body’s storage. Also, our blood pressure and heart rate increase, as well as alertness in our brain.
However, if the stressful situation is not ended quickly, the high levels of Cortisol begin to suppress immune function. But does suppressing the Immune system not make our body more vulnerable for bacteria?
What we need to consider here is that our body is not programmed for chronic high levels of Cortisol. Cortisol is needed to give our body the last “push” it needs in a stressful situation, to fight for survival. In this case, all other processes that could use too much energy, are reduced. Our body thinks that this is just a short period of time, so suppressing the immune system should not lead to sickness.
However, in today’s lifestyle, people often have chronic high levels of Cortisol, leading to increased sickness.
Cortisol shrinks our Thymus
In fact, the process starts in early childhood.
Researchers found that high Cortisol levels during childhood (especially ages 1 to 4) shrink the Thymus and inhibit white blood cell production (immune cells). This is an organ right in front of your chest, responsible for synthesis of immune cells.
These cells are only produced in big amounts during childhood. Afterwards, our thymus shrinks and is replaced by fat tissue. However, high levels of Cortisol have shown to speed up this process and shrink the Thymus during childhood. As a result, those children will have reduced amount of immune cells their entire life. This is what increases the risk of cancer development, along with many other diseases.
In addition to that, scientists found that Cortisol actually signals immune-cells to shut off and stop their functioning all together.
Stress and autoimmune diseases
Regarding autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s or rheumatic diseases, they seem to flare up most during times of stress. However, Cortisol is often used to treat these diseases. Does this make any sense?
Again, we need to think from our body’s perspective. Our body thinks that the stressors are short-term, so it makes sense to increase immune function for a short period of time. As immune cells get more active, more cells attack our body’s structures, which can worsen autoimmune conditions.
No matter how much Cortisol you are already taking, stressful situations will always cause a flare up. Then, as the stressors are eliminated, Cortisol suppresses immune function again and patients’ symptoms decrease as well.
Stress and cancer
Lastly, the relationship of stress and cancer is a hot topic in research. Generally, our body’s physiological processes are built to protect itself – from bacteria, viruses and cancer cells. There are certain types of cells, also called natural killer cells, specified on detecting these cells. Cancer cells are cells of our own body but they have genetic mutations, causing them to replicate. Also, they don’t release certain signal molecules our body’s cells use to communicate with each other. This lack of signals is one of the main factors our natural killer cells search for to find cancer cells.
However, as Cortisol suppresses immune function, our natural killer cells cannot fulfill their tasks properly.
In addition to that, studies have shown that Cortisol promotes the synthesis of new blood vessels in tumors (also called angiogenesis). This increases risk of metastasis in cancer patients.
In conclusion, chronic stress does not only accelerate the growth of cancer cells in our body but also block our body’s ability to battle the disease.
Stress can make you sick
Numerous studies in animals and humans have shown that both acute and chronic stress increase risk of diseases, especially of upper-respiratory-tract infections (URTIs). People who are under the greatest stress are the ones who most often get these types of sicknesses. For instance, students catch colds during exam week, and accountants get sore throats in April.
To sum it up
Today, we learned that Cortisol is beneficial in short-term stressful situations to increase alertness and our body’s ability to fight. However, prolonged periods of Cortisol, especially starting in early childhood, suppress our immune system and increase risk of many diseases, such as cancer, flare up of autoimmune diseases, infections and many more.
I hope this series has helped you to find out more about your body and why you might get sick often, struggle to lose weight and why there are so many people getting cancer nowadays.
In the following articles, we will finally examine how to reverse the effects of cortisol with proper nutrition and training!