Stress and Immune Health: The Surprising Link to Aging
Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (June 2022)
Lifestyle Medicine Update (June 21, 2022)
In the fast-paced world we live in, stress is an unwelcome companion for many. It creeps into our lives in various forms – traumatic events, job pressures, everyday hassles, and even discrimination. While we’ve long recognized the toll stress takes on our mental well-being, a recent study, published in June 2022 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals an alarming connection between stress and the aging of our immune system. This accelerated immune aging, caused by stress, raises the spectre of increased risks, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and vulnerability to infections like COVID-19.
The Immune System’s Vital Role
As we age, our immune system undergoes a natural decline, leaving us more susceptible to diseases and infections. The immune cells lose their potency, and fresh, “naïve” T cells become scarcer, reducing our defences. It’s a natural part of the aging process but one that has far-reaching implications for our health. Age-related changes in the immune system play a critical role in our overall well-being .
The Stress Factor
The groundbreaking study in June 2022 unveiled the impact of stress on this age-related immune decline. It involved nearly 6,000 adults aged 50 and above and found that individuals with higher stress levels had immune cells that were either worn out or functioning poorly. These stressed individuals also had fewer fresh naïve immune cells being generated in their bodies. Remarkably, these findings held true even when accounting for factors like education, smoking, alcohol consumption, body fat, race, and ethnicity. In essence, chronic stress from various sources weakens our immune system, making us more vulnerable to severe infections and potentially raising the risk of cancer .
The Silver Lining: Diet and Lifestyle
While the link between stress and immune aging may be alarming, there’s a silver lining. Positive nutrition and lifestyle choices have been shown to enhance immune system function. This study reinforces that notion. Even in individuals with high stress levels, those who maintained healthier diets and regular exercise regimens demonstrated better immune health. As Dr. Eric Klopack, a lead study author, points out, “people who experience more stress tend to have poorer diet and exercise habits, partly explaining why they have more accelerated immune aging” .
Nutritional Support for Immunity
Prior research has highlighted the role of certain vitamins and minerals like vitamins C, E, A, D, zinc, selenium, and folic acid in strengthening and supporting our immune function. In addition to these nutrients, various herbs and supplements have shown promise in bolstering immunity. Examples include Astragalus, Milk thistle, Indole-3-carbinol, Reishi mushroom extract, and other medicinal mushrooms.
The Power of Adaptogens
For those navigating high-stress environments, adaptogen herbs can be a valuable ally. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine highlighted the benefits of Ashwagandha, an adaptogen herb. The study found that Ashwagandha supplementation improved immune system health in healthy adults. Those who received Ashwagandha extract exhibited increased levels of immunoglobins, crucial in the fight against infections, and secreted higher amounts of immune-enhancing cytokines. Notably, no adverse events were reported in the study.
A Holistic Approach to Stress Management
In the face of stress, a combination supplement comprising Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, and Schisandra can work synergistically to mitigate stress’s impact on the body and brain, including supporting better immune health. These adaptogens offer a means to offset the accelerated decline of immune function often seen under stress.
As we navigate the challenges of modern life, understanding the profound connection between stress and immune health is crucial. Stress can accelerate the aging of our immune system, potentially leading to severe health consequences. However, by making conscious choices to maintain a healthy lifestyle and integrating adaptogen herbs into our routine, we can empower our immune system to remain robust and resilient, even in the face of adversity. Taking proactive steps to support our immune function is key to extending our healthy life expectancy and ensuring a high quality of life.
- Tharakan A et al. Immunomodulatory effect of Withania somnifera (Ashwaganda) extract- A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial with an open label extension on healthy participants. J Clin Med, 2012; 10 (16): 3644. [Read more](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8397213/)
- Klopack E.T., et al. Social stressors associated with age-related T lymphocyte percentages in older US adults: Evidence from the US Health and Retirement Study. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2022; 119 (25) [Read more](https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.2202780119)
- Stress accelerates immune aging, study finds. Science Daily. June 13, 2022. [Read more](https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/06/220613150648.htm)
Dr. James Meschino
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. James Meschino, DC, MS, ROHP, is an educator, author, and researcher having lectured to thousands of healthcare professionals across North America. He holds a Master’s Degree in Science with specialties in human nutrition and biology and is recognized as an expert in the field of nutrition, anti-aging, fitness, and wellness as well as the author of numerous books.