.Just as the level of the hormone insulin in your bloodstream is determined by what you eat, the level of the hormone cortisol is determined by what you think.
Cortisol has far-reaching systemic effects relating to many of your bodies functions. Any discussion of weight gain would have to include the effects of cortisol; however, cortisol is best known as the stress hormone. It is the relationship of stress to immune function that is the focus of this post.
When the immune system is alert and active, it is busy protecting you. It removes toxins and other debris from the body’s bloodstream and tissues; and, it attacks invaders that pose a threat to your survival (bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells).
Your body is programmed to protect you; survival is the body’s primary directive. Your body must operate by specific rules of survival. The function of a traffic light makes a good analogy of how the body responds to stress and controls the function of its immune system.
When you drive your automobile, you must obey specific rules. When you come to a stop light, if it is red, you must stop. If it is green it is okay to proceed. Your body functions in the same manner. It directs your immune system in accordance to the stress signal it receives.
Red Light – Acute Stress
Acute stress is the reaction to possible dangerous situations that the brain interprets as a threat to the body’s safety. It is a short-term reaction to a terrifying event or threat. In response to this dangerous situation the body secretes hormones that cause an immediate physical reaction.
Knowledge of how stress hormones effect the body in an acute stress situation is important in understanding the harmful effect of prolonged or chronic stress to immune function.
The following is what happens (pertaining to the immune system) in response to a perceived danger – like meeting a bear on a hiking path:
- You are faced with a perceived terrifying event.
- A complex cascade of hormones ensues – high levels of the hormone cortisol are secreted into the bloodstream.
- These stress hormones direct the immune system to stop its normal activities. Some immune cells are directed to gather in the lymph nodes throughout the body and wait “further instructions.” These immune cells are positioned to be able to respond quickly to a potential life-threatening wound. If an animal bites you, all manner of bacteria might enter your system when the animals’ teeth puncture your skin. Monocytes (white blood cells) passively flatten themselves motionless on the walls of the blood vessels.
- Cortisol will cause the blood stream to be flooded with glucose (blood sugar – energy) supplying an immediate energy source to be available to large muscles.
- Cortisol will inhibit insulin production in an attempt to prevent glucose from being stored. Functionally, this is a form of insulin resistance.
- Cortisol narrows the arteries while stress hormones increase heart rate, both of which force blood to pump harder and faster.
- When the danger or threat is resolved, hormone levels return to normal and immune cells return to their normal function of protecting the body by removing toxins, waste, and other threats (bacteria, viruses, cancer cells) from the body’s tissues.
Yellow Caution Light – Chronic Stress
Chronic stress is a grinding stress that wears on you day after day, year after year. Chronic stress is caused by your thoughts and emotions in response to the unrelenting demands and pressures of life.
Your thoughts and emotions of worry, fear, anger, anxiety, betrayal, etc. are perceived by your body as a threat; your body’s response is the increased secretion of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
The effect on the immune system of prolonged increased levels of stress hormones is not like that of acute stress – where the immune system is brought to a standstill; It is more like trying to drive your automobile with the parking brake partially set. Over long periods of time, chronically increased levels of cortisol suppress the action of the immune system and make you more susceptible to colds and other chronic illnesses – including increased risk of cancer or cancer relapse.
Chronic stress wreaks havoc on your health. It is directly related to insulin resistance, weight gain and obesity, cardiovascular diseases, gastrointestinal problems, impaired memory, chronic fatigue, and immune suppression.
Green Light – Normal Immune Function
When you are emotionally calm, serene, and cheerful; and when your thoughts are positive and optimistic; your immune cells will be active and alert, protecting the body from toxins, bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells.
You Have the Ability to Determine the Color of Your Stress Signal.
The most amazing part of stress is the body will believe whatever the mind tells it. The amount and duration of the secretion of stress hormones is determined by you. Remember, every cell in your body knows what you are thinking and responds immediately.
Your response to traffic offers a good example. Suppose that you are driving on a highway and another car cuts you off. You swerve to avoid it!
When you perceived the danger, your body received a burst of stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol. At the same time your immune cells were sent to positions throughout your body (lymph nodes) to stand on alert and be ready for an accident. Your vision and reflexes were heightened.
Once you realized you were safe, your hormone level returned to normal. This is an example of an acute stress response.
This is different from driving every day through congestion and traffic jams. If your response to this type of traffic is anxiety, frustration, anger, and even road rage then traffic has become a stressful event for you. These emotional reactions are going to increase the level of cortisol in your bloodstream. This, in turn, will suppress your immune system.
On the other hand, if you remain calm and relaxed, and you use the time that you must be in traffic in a positive, thoughtful manner, your immune system will remain active and alert.
What about life’s more consequential circumstances? What about when you have been betrayed by a friend or loved one? What about the consequences of the bad choices you have made? There is no question about it, life is full of hurts, pains, disappointments, and bad news. However, there is no circumstance where you do not have the opportunity to control your response.
Chronic stress caused by poor management of your thoughts and emotions sabotages the health of your immune system. Your thoughts and emotions have physical consequences.
Deadly Emotions, by Don Colbert, M.D. In Deadly Emotions, Dr. Don Colbert exposes those potentially devastating feelings – what they are, where they come from, and how they manifest themselves. You do not have to be at the mercy of your emotions. Dr. Colbert shows you how to rise above deadly emotions and find true health – for your body, mind, and spirit.