What is evidence stress

Chronic stress weakens the immune system

Acute stress boosts the immune system for a short time, while chronic stress weakens it considerably: the susceptibility to diseases increases.

The immune system is a complex system that protects us from harmful pathogens and recognizes and eliminates the body's own cells that have developed incorrectly during cell division. The unspecific immune defense includes natural barriers for potential pathogens and triggers inflammatory reactions. It is innate and unchangeable - in contrast to the specific immune defense: This is "capable of learning" and, for example, forms antibodies against pathogens with which the body comes into contact. However, the activity of the immune system changes under severe stress.

How does stress affect the immune system?

In acute stress - e.g. in an exam situation - the immune system strengthens the unspecific defense. From an evolutionary point of view, this definitely makes sense: Since stress used to arise primarily from life-threatening situations, the body prepares itself to quickly heal threatened physical damage. The specific defense, on the other hand, is shut down - it is less needed in threatening situations than the unspecific one.

With acute stress, the number of white blood cells, phagocytes and natural killer cells (NK cells) increases, the latter becoming more active at the same time. Components of the specific defense, such as T lymphocytes, on the other hand, multiply more slowly. The purpose of this is to allow the immune system to concentrate more on the non-specific defense.

What happens with chronic stress?

We speak of chronic stress when there is a long-term exposure. The cause can on the one hand be a traumatic experience such as the death of a spouse, but also being overwhelmed at work, caring for relatives or living conditions that permanently burden the psyche.

While in acute stress only the specific defense is throttled, in chronic stress both the specific and the unspecific immune defense suffer. So it is not only the specific immune cells that divide more slowly, but also white blood cells, phagocytes and NK cells. The total number and activity of immune cells in the blood decreases - the immune defense is weakened as a result.

What effects does chronic stress have on the immune system?

Countless studies have already looked at the effects of stress on the immune system (psycho-neuro-immunology). They all came to the same conclusion: those who are permanently stressed are more likely to get sick because viruses, bacteria and germs have less resistance. This applies to both acute infections and chronic diseases. Atopic dermatitis patients, for example, can react to severe stress with a flare-up, and fever blisters appear more frequently in stressful periods.

But not only does the susceptibility to illness increase: the healing process can also be prolonged by chronic stress. Wounds, for example, heal more slowly and vaccinations are less effective.

In addition, stress promotes the development of cancer: When cells divide, our bodies often make "mistakes". Mutated daughter cells - cancer cells - are the result. In this case, the natural killer cells are called into action and destroy the mutated cell. With chronic stress, however, the number and activity of NK cells is reduced - cancer cells can multiply before they are rendered harmless than with an intact immune system.

What can I do about chronic stress?

With chronic stress, the first step is always to reduce stress. Everything that is felt to be stressful and can be given should be settled - be it voluntary overtime, ambitious, ambitious goals at work or voluntary club activity in your free time.

++ More on the topic: How to fire the stress ++

Regular exercise, especially those that you enjoy doing, is an excellent anti-stress remedy. In addition, there is a large number of exercises for body and mind such as yoga, meditation, autonomous training, Qi-Gong or progressive muscle relaxation, which can literally bring us back into physical and mental balance. The best way to find out for yourself which method is best for whom is to try it out.

If the cause of the permanent stress is psychological trauma, psychotherapy is advisable. In particularly severe cases, such as a burn-out syndrome that has already been diagnosed, drugs such as antidepressants can also be used.

The following video provides helpful tips for a strong immune system:

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Katrin Derler, BA
Medical review:
Dr. Ralf Kleef
Editorial editing:
Elisabeth Mondl

Updated on:

Glaser et al .: Stress-induced immune dysfunction: implications for health. In: Nature Reviews: Immunology, Vol. 5, March 2005 (online, last accessed: 10.09.2015)

Schulz, Gold: Psychological Stress, Immune Functions and Disease Developments: The Psychoneuroimmunological Perspective. In: Federal Health Gazette - Health Research - Health Protection, 2006 (online, last access: 10.09.2015)

Bauer et al .: Human monocytes are severely impaired in base and DNA double-strand break repair that renders them vulnerable to oxidative stress. In: PNAS Vol. 108 No. 52, 2011 (online, last access: 10.09.2015)

Schedlowksi et al: Stress and the immune system. In: Naturwissenschaften, May 1996, 83 (5) (Online, last accessed: August 26, 2015)

Cohen et al .: Psychological Stress and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. In: New England Journal of Medicine, 1991; 325: 606-612 (Online, last accessed: 09/10/2015)

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