Research & Education

Impacts of Stress, sleep, and loneliness on Immune and mental health

According to researchers from Rice University, chronic stress (that takes place over several weeks), disrupted sleep, and loneliness “are three factors that can seriously compromise aspects of the immune system that make people more susceptible to viruses if exposed.“

Stress, loneliness/isolation, and poor sleep “can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to COV-19” by promoting an over-response of pro-inflammatory cytokine production that “can generate sustained upper respiratory infection symptoms.” Overactive immune response “can be deadly and was associated with pneumonia from two earlier coronaviruses, MERS and SARS.”

This news is a bit of a conundrum as we face the global COVID-19 pandemic and are constantly being bombarded with fear, negative news from the media, news of the stock market being in a steep decline, and are strongly encouraged (or required in some areas) to stay home and avoid contact with other people to stop the spread of the virus. While social isolation may help prevent further spread of the virus, it may cause negative emotions or a depressed mental state that can weaken our immune systems.

According to researchers, healthy individuals who are less social are more likely to get sick and experience worse symptoms when exposed to the cold virus than people who spend more time socializing around others. On the other hand, researchers go on to say that extroverted people (who have an increased likelihood of being in contact with more “germs”) may have a more favorable immune response due to the mechanisms by which positive emotions buffer against stressors.

It is well-researched that chronic (or repeated) stress changes brain structure and function. This persistent stress puts individuals at risk for significant physiological and psychological problems, as it is a major trigger for perpetual inflammation in the body and brain. Repeated stress – and subsequent inflammatory cytokines – causes the blood-brain barrier to become permeable to those circulating pro-inflammatory cytokines, allowing them to enter the brain and adversely affecting brain regions associated with motivation, mood, and mental agility.  

Furthermore, lack of sleep, and/or poor quality of sleep suppresses the immune system, making an individual more likely to catch a cold or virus. Alcohol misuse, stressful jobs, poor diet, lack of exercise, and psychological stressors all have detrimental effects on sleep quality.

A recent neuroimaging study published in late February of this year revealed that daily meditation may slow brain aging. Meditation is another method for lowering stress, worry, and overthinking – especially during these stressful and uncertain times – thereby helping reduce inflammation that greatly interacts with and influences the immune system. Staying connected with friends and family through video communication (e.g., Skype or FaceTime) may be very helpful to minimize perceived social isolation and decrease stress levels.

Finding creative ways to stay active and keep exercising while respecting social distancing during this pandemic is important not only to support overall cardiometabolic health, but also to support the brain and mental health. A new study provides evidence that cardiorespiratory exercises, such as brisk walking, running, and biking, are associated with maintaining brain function, particularly by increasing (and/or decelerating decline of) gray matter volume in brain tissue, “having a positive impact on cognitive function” and “protective against aging-related cognitive decline.” One hundred fifty minutes of moderate regular exercise per week continues to be the recommendation, and while most gyms are closed right now, getting outside in nature for long walks, running, biking in non-crowded areas, and/or doing at-home workouts using body weight and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) exercises are all creative and effective ways to reach that target goal.

Maintaining strong cellular health is particularly vital right now. In addition to immune-supportive nutrient supplementation like elderberry, zinc, vitamin C, colloidal silver, and geranylgeraniol from the annatto plant, micronutrients and herbs that help decrease stress, enhance mood, and support brain health, are very important to support a healthy immune system. Vitamin D, magnesium threonate, phosphatidylserine, choline, 5-HTP, melatonin, saffron extract, B vitamins, GABA, lemon balm, and L-theanine are several of many to have beneficial effects on mood, stress, sleep, and cognitive function.

Now more than ever, encourage patients to maintain a healthy diet that is rich in vegetables and fiber, practice good sleep and personal hygiene, decrease alcohol consumption, manage stress levels, stop smoking, and maintain a healthy weight. Even if patients don’t have access to fresh produce, frozen vegetables and fruits are better options than canned, packaged or processed foods.