Healthy lifestyle

The effects of chronic stress on long-term health

Stress and immunity

How do our thoughts affect our defences? How do the brain/nervous system and the immune system communicate? Why are we more prone to fall ill when we are under stress? How does stress affect immunity?

From an evolutionary perspective, the activation of the innate immune system and the attenuation of the adaptive immune response used to occur in life-or-death situations in which the body had to prepare to rapidly heal impending physical damage.

Today, however, acute stress is no longer caused by the need to run from predators, but by pressure, fear or anger. We experience stress when standing before an audience, performing difficult tasks or when faced with extreme situations (e.g. bungee jumping, parachuting). In such occasions, the brain sends message to the adrenal glands to release cortisol, causing the immune system to:

  1. Increase the number of phagocytes and natural killer cells.
  2. Activate more natural killer cells.
  3. Slow down the division of specialised immune cells.

Hence, acute stress stimulates the immune system and is generally beneficial.

However, what happens when stress becomes chronic?

In chronic stress, cortisol levels are constantly increased, whereby this hormone binds to receptors located on the surface of certain white blood cells, which consequently secrete less interleukin-1-beta, a messenger molecule which:

  1. Stimulates the proliferation of immune cells. 
  2. Increases the activity of natural killer cells.
  3. Promotes the production of antibodies specific to certain pathogens. 

Thus, decreased interleukin-1-beta secretion reduces the efficacy of the immune system. Chronic stress is associated with chronic inflammation, oxidative stress and immunosenescence. 

Chronic stress and ageing

Chronic stress also contributes to the ageing of the immune system (immunosenescence) by promoting the establishment of a chronic proinflammatory state known as “inflammaging”, thus accelerating the ageing process of the immune system and the body in general.

Another process involved in immunosenescence and ageing is telomere shortening. Telomeres are specialised structures located at the end of chromosomes, protecting them from degradation. These structures shorten progressively with cellular divisions, a process which is correlated with age: older cells have shorter telomeres. The immune system is sensible to telomere shortening, since it directly affects its cellular components.

It has been shown that chronic stress causes telomere shortening, suggesting that stress accelerates ageing.

Micro-immunotherapy: Immunoregulation to prevent the effects of chronic stress 

Chronic stress is a dysregulating factor which brings various body systems out of balance, including the immune system. As an immunoregulatory approach, micro-immunotherapy provides support on an immunological, hormonal and neuronal level. Through the administration of immune messenger substances in low doses, it brings the various systems back into balance, counteracting the proinflammatory effect of chronic stress and supporting the body’s own capacity for self-regulation.

The objectives of micro-immunotherapy in chronic stress are the following:

The objectives of micro-immunotherapy in chronic stress
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  8. Mariani, E. Different rates of telomere shortening and telomerase activity reduction in CD8 T and CD16 NK lymphocytes with ageing. Exp. Gerontol. 38, 653–659 (2003).

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