Stress is often defined as an organism’s ability to adapt to environmental and psychological demands which result in biological changes that either support health, or could place you at risk for illness (Salleh, 2008). The relationship between stress and illness is complex and varies from person to person. Events in our lives collide with a host of physiological and psychological factors to either protect us from illness or make us more vulnerable.
Some of the factors that influence susceptibility to stress and potential illness are: Genetic vulnerability, sleep behavior, mental coping tools/skills, outlook on life, exercise habits, sleep behavior, hydration habits, recovery behavior, exposure to environment, and social support (Salleh, 2008).
Unmanaged stressors and self-sabotaging behaviors can accumulate in subtle ways and dampen the body’s ability to respond optimally to the demands of the environment, and over time weaken the immune system.
But, I have great news! There are behaviors you can adopt demonstrated in clinical studies to have a powerful impact on your mental, physical, and emotional well-being, thereby buoying immunity and general wellness.
Before I go into ways to boost immunity, a quick note on the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and its role in mediating interactions between the nervous and immune systems, two important adaptive systems. The ANS is part of the nervous system that governs non-voluntary responses and is broken into two branches, sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). SNS is the activating branch and PSNS is the deactivating branch.
The key working principle to understand is that autonomic-immune physiological processing determines how the immune system engages with your ANS, in turn influencing the regulation of the level of activity in SNS and PSNS. In simple terms, ANS and immunity seem innately linked (Kenney and Ganta, 2014). A heart that is highly responsive to cues from the ANS (the faster you can switch gears!) is a sign of robustness and resilience. A heart that is slow to respond to cues from ANS (struggles to switch gears) is a sign of under-recovery and greater susceptibility to illness.
At WHOOP, we measure heart rate variability (HRV), which is a function of the heart but originates in the ANS (the “switching gears” mentioned above). HRV is the variation in the time interval between one heartbeat and the next and is an excellent estimator of your overall immune health (decrease in variability means the heart is less responsive to signaling from the ANS, increase in variability means the heart is responsive to cues). When your immune system is compromised you will generally see a suppression in your HRV relative to your baseline. In this state, your system is working overtime to maintain the processes required for physiological homeostasis. As a result, your body is less capable of adapting to acute stressors.
Here are some science-backed choices to consider building into your life to increase your heart’s ability to respond to cues from the ANS and potentially strengthen immunity–think of it as “adaptation energy!”
Accessing feelings of gratitude, doing random acts of kindness, and reliving positive experiences directly activates brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is our energy neurotransmitter and we need appropriate levels to feel energetic and excited about life. It is also an important communication mediator at the neural-immune level (Basu, 2000) and there is recent evidence to suggest a direct and indirect role in modulating the immune system (Toth, et. al. 2012).
Daily gratitude practice is also linked to lower blood pressure, drops in stress hormones, optimized testosterone and estrogen release, and an increased capacity to be present (Redwine et. al., 2016)–all good things as it relates to immune health. A great way to facilitate the release of this “feel-good compound” is to write down positive experiences and feelings of gratitude in a journal each day!
“Ninety percent of our long-term happiness, success, and general well-being is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world. “It stands to reason if we alter our lens, if we change the formula for happiness and success, we can change the way that we can then affect reality.” (Achor, 2012)
Most of our unproductive emotions that cause us distress and suppress immune function (anger, jealousy, insecurity, guilt, shame, etc.) are rooted in fear, while positive emotions that release stress and boost immunity (confidence, grace, optimism, gratitude, courage etc.) are rooted in trust. The positive emotions that support immune health begin with being comfortable with who you are and ensuring outlets and skill building around the things that bring you joy and energy.
To begin the process, a helpful exercise is to write down a list of “typical behaviors” (i.e., how you spend your time) and then list what emotions you associate with these behaviors. The behaviors/actions that yield negative emotions might be the ones that are compromising your health. Consciously replacing behaviors that yield negative feelings and emotions is a critical next step. “Deprogramming” can be difficult, but when you ask questions of your behaviors and its effect (i.e., is it making me healthier, happier and more energetic?) all of a sudden there is clarity.
Consciously building a personal system that includes behaviors that elevate positive emotions and enable a growth mindset is an awesome way to bolster resilience and immune health (Koh, 1998).
Identify your core values then ensure your behaviors align as often as possible.
Chronic misalignment between your core values and actual behaviors fosters internal tension and can create unproductive anxiety and suppress immunity (Salleh, 2008). Knowing what matters to you and who matters to you brings clarity to your decision making and allows you to focus your time, energy, and attention in a way that is in line with your core values. The goal is not to construct a perfect life, but rather an honest reflection of your interior life.
Consider the following exercise to help identify core values:
Try doing this exercise from the lens of the various “roles” you have in your life (i.e., mother, partner, professional, daughter, sister, etc). Here is a “values list” to get the juices flowing.
Your internal fitness is directly proportional to the folks you hang out with and how they contribute to empowering your best self. People who nurture and support your core values and enable autonomy will help relieve harmful levels of stress which can adversely affect coronary arteries, gut function, and insulin regulation.
An exercise to help bring these concepts into focus could be:
We put undue stress on our system when we focus on things that are outside of our immediate influence. You can find peace by focusing on the things in your life you can control directly. A feeling of “inner peace” improves and stabilizes our self-image and frees up energy to direct toward our larger aspirations and goals (Beutel, 2016).
It is important to understand that feeling we have control over our life is a core psychological need (Ryan and Deci, 2000). One of the sabotaging behaviors that interfere with “control” is procrastination related to relationships, health, and the “daily grind.” Procrastination is often associated with depression, stress and anxiety, which ultimately interfere with healthy autonomic balance.
Big projects need a plan, relationships need a plan, and “little” things need a plan too (e.g., laundry, clutter, bills). Procrastination can add psychological weight which will manifest internally and put pressure on your system in ways that are not immediately perceptible. Feeling organized and in control (however you define it) stimulates and increases the tone of the vagus nerve which helps your nervous system speak to your cardiovascular system in a more efficient way. Efficiency equates to HRV increase and a stronger defense system!
To augment feelings of control, think about organizing life demands into 4 buckets:
Schedule these just as you would a work meeting or commitment. If you schedule it, that means there is an action item attached. For example, in the “repeatable habits” bucket, maybe your goal is to meditate two times per day for 15 minutes. If you don’t schedule a time to do it, the chances of this behavior happening consistently lessen. Research has repeatedly found that when behaviors are tracked and evaluated, they improve drastically.
Achor, Shawn. (2012). Positive intelligence. Harvard business review. 90. 100-2, 153. https://hbr.org/2012/01/positive-intelligence
Basu S, Dasgupta PS (2000). Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, influences the immune system. J Neuroimmunol 102(2):113-24. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11481-017-9749-2
Beutel ME, Klein EM, Aufenanger S, Brähler E, Dreier M, et al. (2016) Procrastination, Distress and Life Satisfaction across the Age Range – A German Representative Community Study. PLOS ONE 11(2): e0148054. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0148054
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Kenney, M. J., & Ganta, C. K. (2014). Autonomic nervous system and immune system interactions. Comprehensive Physiology, 4(3), 1177–1200. https://doi.org/10.1002/cphy.c130051
Redwine, L. S., Henry, B. L., Pung, M. A., Wilson, K., Chinh, K., Knight, B., Jain, S., Rutledge, T., Greenberg, B., Maisel, A., & Mills, P. J. (2016). Pilot Randomized Study of a Gratitude Journaling Intervention on Heart Rate Variability and Inflammatory Biomarkers in Patients With Stage B Heart Failure. Psychosomatic medicine, 78(6), 667–676. https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000316
Ryan, R. M.; Deci, E. L. (2000). “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being”. American Psychologist. 55: 68–78. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68.
Salleh M. R. (2008). Life event, stress and illness. The Malaysian journal of medical sciences : MJMS, 15(4), 9–18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341916/
B.E. Tóth, M. Vecsernyés, T. Zelles, K. Kádár, G.M. Nagy. Role of Peripheral and Brain-Derived Dopamine (DA) in Immune Regulation. Advances in Neuroimmune Biology, 2012 DOI: 10.3233/NIB-2012-012044 https://content.iospress.com/articles/advances-in-neuroimmune-biology/nib012044