Is Chronic Stress Impacting Your Immune System?

June 30

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It seemed appropriate to put together a video on the current state of affairs (AKA: mass panic, fear and stress) in relation to what Chronic Stress does to your body’s brain and physiological processes and systems – specifically your immune system – check it out!

The following is an excerpt from one of my Precision Nutrition Level 2 Certification Lessons – I was reading it the other day and thought “Damn, I’ve just got to share this with the crew…”

Chronic Stress & ONE REASON YOU MIGHT NOT LIKE THE LION KING.

“Body knowledge” and “body communication”: Some examples

Yesterday we introduced you to the concept of “body knowledge”. And we asked you to start a new daily practice: A mind-body scan.

You might not be sure what this has to do with coaching. Just trust us. It’ll all make sense soon.

Today we’ll look at some examples of “body knowledge” and “body communication”.

Hopefully this will help to make the concept more clear (and less woo-woo). It’ll also give you a sense of what you might see in your work with clients.

Psychoneuroimmunology, psychoneuroendocrinology, and the stress response

The fields of psychoneuroimmunology and psychoneuroendocrinology are interdisciplinary approaches to health that incorporate areas such as:

  • psychology, behavioral sciences, and psychiatry
  • neuroscience of the brain and the broader nervous system
  • immunology and infectious diseases
  • pharmacology and molecular biology
  • rheumatology
  • endocrinology
  • cardiology & pulmonology

(Heck, it’s like every “ology” in the world is involved. Pile on!)

The idea is simple, though:

  • Processes, structures, and systems in the body are connected.
  • Thoughts, feelings, and experiences can affect these interconnected physiological processes, structures, and systems…
  • …which can then themselves affect thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

The most familiar example might be the stress response.

For instance:

  1. You are in a situation.
  2. You decide this situation is stressful.This decision involves cognition (“Eek! A lion!”), emotion (“I’m scared!”), and physical sensations (“The lion is eating my arm! That hurts!”).It might also involve more abstract reasoning and imagination (“I’m going to die! What does it all mean? Did I waste my life?”).
  3. The decision that a situation is stressful results in the release of hormones, cytokines (cell signaling molecules) and the transmission of electrical impulses in your nervous system.(“Run!”; “Pump out cortisol to free up glucose for running!”; “Leg muscle motor neurons FIRE IN THE HOLE!!” etc.)
  4. Your innate immune system, responding to the “Help!” signals sent by pain receptors and cytokines, starts blasting out macrophages and other immune cells, while your platelets do their best to clot and stop the bleeding.

All well and good. (Except for the arm issue.)

If the stress continues, of course, your various systems will not be able to adapt and recover adequately.

Just like the acute stress response, this will affect:

  • your cognition, emotion, and physical sensations
  • your hormones, cytokines, and nervous system
  • your cardiovascular system (including heart rate regulation and breathing)
  • your innate and adaptive immune system (including an ongoing immune system activation or depression)

And over time, the stress will wear you down in all these related areas. No single area will be affected in isolation.

In this week’s case study, we’ll look at how stress might affect the body… even if there are no lions involved.

Trauma and recovery

Trauma can be defined in many ways.

One of the hallmarks of trauma is that it persists long after the “real” threat has ended.

So, as in our example above, you’d be injured by the lion attack. You’d have physical damage to the tissues.

If your arm healed and you felt no ill effects, you wouldn’t be traumatized.

But if, after your arm healed perfectly, you continued to have pain, flashbacks, unexplained anxiety, inability to watch The Lion King, etc., then that’s trauma.

In essence, traumatic events “stamp” the brain and body with neurochemical and physiological “signatures”.

For example:

  • your amygdala might be over-activated now, responding with panic and racing heart at the merest whiff of lion scent
  • you might find yourself crouched in a “fear posture” or protecting your arm unconsciously whenever you hear a lion-like noise, even the roar of a sports car
  • your arm might hurt, even though it’s healed
  • you freak out when you see someone with a beauteous, bushy head of golden hair
  • you’re constantly preoccupied with thoughts of lions, and relive the arm-chewing moment in your dreams — which prompts an existential crisis of meaning (“Am I doomed to be a lion worrier forever? Why can’t I get over this?”)

You get the idea, silly as this example is.

So, two key ideas here:

  1. Recovery from trauma requires an integration of mind, body, and spirit, because trauma’s scars are in all of these places.
  2. Trauma and the psychoneuroendocrinology of the stress response profoundly affect your clients’ food and eating habits, behaviors, choices, mindsets, and self-perceptions.

Trauma: The fire alarm that never shuts off

It may help to picture trauma as an ongoing alarm that’s always in the background.

Here’s a metaphor of how this works.

Picture a child experiencing this scenario of a fire alarm being pulled at school:

  • Alarm is pulled (immediate response to a threat, real or imagined)
  • Concern and tension is raised
  • Everyone files outside
  • Fire trucks come
  • Firefighters go in, look around, check to make sure everything is safe
  • Firefighter comes out and tells everyone it’s okay to go back inside (closure)
  • Child feels safe, goes on with his or her day, forgets about the alarm

Now imagine the scenario going this way:

  • Alarm is pulled
  • Concern and tension is raised
  • Everyone goes outside
  • Fire truck never comes
  • After a while, everyone is told just to go back inside and get back to work
  • Alarm continues to sound in the background while life carries on for the child (no closure)

Over time, that alarm would fade to the background of the child’s mind, and life would indeed carry on.

Yet it would always be there… reminding the child of a danger that remains unresolved, threatening to return at any moment.

Again, this can lead to over-reactions, elevated anxieties around certain subjects, avoidance, and a whole host of unhelpful coping mechanisms.

Over time, these responses to the original unresolved trauma can snowball into some pretty serious altered ways of interacting with the world.

As their nutrition coach, you shouldn’t be their psychotherapist — but you do need to understand how this works, and the basic context in which these challenges occur.

We’ll talk more about this tomorrow.

The stress & trauma spectrum

You might remember Rocky Balboa’s “dad speech” to his son.

Just to refresh your memory, here it is

According to Life Expert Dr. Balboa, “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place.”

In other words, your clients will come to you with a host of stresses, traumas, and baggage.

Of course, these are on a spectrum.

Some clients might have nothing more serious than a hangnail and a case of the Mondays. Other clients may be dealing with deeper issues.

Yet trauma and stress can have significant effects regardless of whether they are major.

This is especially true when it comes to the ways in which trauma and stress can shape food and eating behavior. (And some trauma “signatures” are especially frustrating because they seem so minor, which leaves you and clients wondering: What the heck is my problem?)

The food habits and mindsets that your clients have may come from the simple indignities of daily life and growing up. Or they may come from events that qualify as capital-T trauma, on the order of “When I was in Afghanistan…”

In all cases, though, the body doesn’t really know the difference. It responds with a stress response, all the same.


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