We are living in tumultuous times right now! Covid-19 has been with us for many months, and political tension may be the icing on the stress cake. This is the time when we want our immune systems to function optimally and finding effective ways to deal with stress may be one of the most important things we can do right now.
Typically, when we experience a stressful situation our body produces stress hormones such as cortisol, which lead to a cascade of beneficial changes throughout the body to address the stressful event. These effects are transitory and pass after the event is over. But chronic stress leads to an imbalance in the hormonal and signaling systems, and they stop functioning for our benefit.
Secretory Immunoglobulin A (SIgA) and Stress
Our immune system is a web of interconnected, intricate, and complex molecular machinery that protects us from external invaders, and often internal ones as well! Given that we have trillions of viruses and bacteria living inside us, our immune system must maintain harmony and a synergistic environment between our cells and those we host.
But for now, let us focus on the first line of defense from the external environment. The systems which interface most with the outside world are respiratory and digestive. They are coated with a mucous layer that contains an important kind of antibody called Secretory Immunoglobulin A (SIgA). These antibodies act like a barrier to the outside world, engulfing viruses, bacteria, parasites, molds, fungi, and any other foreign substance. They trap the invader, neutralize it, and expel it in the stool.
In the digestive system, SIgA also determines which food particles belong and do not belong in the body, playing an important role in the proper assimilation of food. When SIgA levels are low we are prone to both infections and food allergies. Gut healing has recently become central in holistic and functional medicines for this very reason.
While low levels of SIgA indicate low immune function, high levels of SIgA are not good for us either and are usually caused by infections or inflammation. A balanced immune system produces SIgA levels that are not too high, nor too low.
These antibodies are amazing warriors on our behalf. Unfortunately, they are also highly sensitive to stress, because their production is interconnected with the endocrine (hormonal) system. Since chronic stress wreaks havoc on the hormonal cascade, it leads to lower SIgA production.
Restoring your immune system
If you have been experiencing stress for a long time and want to restore your immune function, you must find ways to de-stress. Practices such as yoga, meditation, moderate exercise, spending time in nature, and breathing techniques have consistently shown to lower stress hormones and induce balance in the body.
In a study on older women (roughly between the ages of 50-70), practicing yoga stretches for 90 minutes increased SIgA levels and lowered cortisol levels of cortisol. This is great news since SIgA levels naturally decline with age. (1)
There are other ways you can boost SIgA levels, while you work on decreasing stress levels and addressing the long-term systemic effects of chronic stress.
- Induce positive emotions: Positive emotions not only enhance our mood but can physiologically change the way our bodies work. One study showed that inducing positive emotions increases the SIgA levels and decreases cortisol. (2)
- Reach out for social support: Social support has been shown to balance out the negative effects of stress on the immune system.
- Nutrition: We need enough nutrients to provide the building blocks for our endocrine and immune systems. This means eating a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory whole-food diet and avoiding processed empty calorie foods that contain toxins, artificial ingredients, and pesticides.
- Supplements: There are vitamins, herbal remedies, probiotics, and supplements that boost our ability to fight off microbes. However, many of these are not universally beneficial for everyone or every microbe. A personalized approach designed by a healthcare professional can be of tremendous help.
- Sleep: Lack of sleep makes us more prone to infections, so getting sufficient sleep is also extremely important to optimize our immune function and balance our stress hormones.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: This type of therapy has been shown to improve immune function after 10 weeks of treatments. And these positive effects lasted 6 months later. (3)
Do you need extra support?
If you have been experiencing stress for a long time, you may need more guidance from a healthcare professional. Chronic stress can lead to many complex effects on the body and you may need a personalized healing approach that may include herbs, supplements, specific dietary and lifestyle changes, and sometimes medications.
In the meantime, you can begin the healing process by finding ways to minimize stress in your life and stop it from suppressing your immune system.