Why your immune system might be functioning at less than its full potential

Even when you’re generally feeling good, your immune system can be running at less than peak efficiency, elevating your risk of getting sick or staying sick longer. That sickness can range from a garden variety head cold or stomach virus to life-threatening infections, disabling chronic conditions or even cancer. Your immune health can be weakened by a host of behavioral factors: lapses in maintaining a well-balanced diet rich in vegetables, fruit and other whole foods; inadequate daily hydration; not getting enough sleep each night; lack of regular exercise, sometimes exacerbated by overcompensating “weekend warrior”‘ activity; or simply indulging too often in that extra cocktail or dessert.

Importantly, the pressure of today’s fast-paced way of life not only can indirectly instigate these behaviors but also have a direct negative impact on the immune system. There’s also the fact that immunity evolves during a lifetime, with childhood unavoidably a time of greater susceptibility to infection.

Today’s Active Lifestyles

Most of us have little choice in this day and age but to lead an active lifestyle, endlessly multi-tasking to meet various demands placed on us by work, school and family responsibilities. While rewarding in many important ways, this ongoing pressure is experienced by the body as a form of chronic stress.

Our body’s ability to become stressed, also known as the “fight or flight” response, evolved in the face of existential threats. Confronting a saber-tooth tiger, the surge in adrenal stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) provided the energy and strength needed to improve odds of survival. But in contrast to the evolutionary benefit of such a short-term or acute stress response, prolonged or chronic stress can both suppress and disrupt the normal functioning of the immune system. This can lead to heightened risk of infections and cancer as well as to sustained inflammation that is at the root of many other serious ailments . . .

Additional Details
A 2004 paper {Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry) by Segerstrom and Miller, published in the Psychological Bulletin, analyzed nearly 300 scientific studies on stress and health. The conclusion: For stress of any significant duration – from a few days to a few months or years, as happens in real life – all functional measures of the immune system, both innate and adaptive, went downhill. (See prior section for immune system overview.) “Immune responses to chronic stressors were equally strong across the age spectrum as well as across sex.”

Moreover, 2012 paper (Chronic Stress Glucocorticoid Receptor Resistance Inflammation and Disease Risk) by Cohen et al., published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that chronic stress (with its associated sustained release of cortisol} diminishes the ability of immune cells to down-regulate their initial inflammatory response. Specifically, immune cells become insensitive to cortisol’s normal anti-inflammatory guidance. “Without sufficient glucocorticoid regulation, the duration and/or intensity of the inflammatory response increases, heightening risk for acute exacerbations such as occur in asthma and autoimmune diseases, as well as for the onset and progression of chronic inflammatory diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes.”