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How Stress Shuts Down the Immune System (With Some Cool Science to Back It Up)

by Jodi Cohen

I have long noticed the correlation between stress and a decline in immune function.

That certainly was my personal experience.  My health was always fairly good until a traumatic event tipped me into auto immunity.  I always intuitively suspected that the trauma was a trigger for my health decline, but could never find clinical research to back up that hypothesis.


Nonetheless, I continued to collect anecdotal evidence from practitioner colleagues of similar health crises occurring within two years of stressful events.  And I poured over research to understand how stress depresses the immune system.  Some of the physiological explanations I gleaned include:

  • Sympathetic Survival Mode: When the body goes the “fight or flight” survival mode, it prioritizes fighting to survive in the current moment over fighting infections and down regulates the immune system.
  • Consistently High Blood Sugar: The emergency fuel supply released during a stress response reduces white blood cell activity and depresses the immune system in general
  • Reduced Lymphocytes: Our stress hormones can suppress the effectiveness of the immune system.   For example, cortisol and corticosteroids suppress immune cells, known as lymphocytes which kill invading organisms. With a lowered amount of lymphocytes, the body is at increased risk of infection and disease.
  • Cortisol suppresses Inflammation: Chronic and prolonged stress can set the body up for to resist cortisol and ramp up production of substances that actually promote inflammation leading to a state of chronic inflammation. These pro-inflammation substances, called cytokines, are associated with a host of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.
  • Poor Immune Signaling: Chronic stress results lower amounts of a protein used to signaling other immune cells. Without these reinforcements, the body is susceptible to contacting acute illnesses, and prolonged healing times.
  • Increased Vulnerability: Long term suppression of the immune system can leave the body vulnerable to infections and disease.


Stress Depresses the Immune System


This weekend, while reading The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel Van Der Kolk’s fascinating research based account of how trauma impacts the body, I stumbled upon the explanation I have been seeking for years.   After noticing a correlation between clients with an incest history and an autoimmune diagnosis—“a disease in which the body starts attacking itself”, he persuaded his colleagues in the immunology laboratory at Massachusetts General to embark on a study to better understand the correlation.

The research compared a full immunology workup of 12 women with incest histories who were not taking any medications to 12 women who had never been traumatized and who also did not take meds.

The study found that “the group of incest survivors had abnormalities in their CD45 RA‑to‑RO ratio, compared with their non-traumatized peers. CD45 cells are the “memory cells” of the immune system. Some of them, called RA cells, have been activated by past exposure to toxins; they quickly respond to environmental threats they have encountered before.

The RO cells, in contrast, are kept in reserve for new challenges; they are turned on to deal with threats the body has not met previously. The RA‑to‑RO ratio is the balance between cells that recognize known toxins and cells that wait for new information to activate.

In patients with histories of incest, the proportion of RA cells that are ready to pounce is larger than normal. This makes the immune system oversensitive to threat, so that it is prone to mount a defense when none is needed, even when this means attacking the body’s own cells.”

Van Der Kolk’s research made perfect sense to me.  He proved that trauma can have profound effects on biological functioning.  More specifically, that the bodies of those under chronic and prolonged stress have trouble distinguishing between danger and safety.

“This means that the imprint of past trauma does not consist only of distorted perceptions of information coming from the outside; the organism itself also has a problem knowing how to feel safe. The past is impressed not only on their minds, and in misinterpretations of innocuous events, but also on the very core of their beings: in the safety of their bodies.”

While trauma and stress can dysregulate the immune system, the body is always capable of healing.  Some essential oils to help support immune modulation include:

Parasympathetic™:  The autonomic nervous system has two states: the “fight-or flight” sympathetic state and the “rest-and-digest” parasympathetic state. The parasympathetic state supports the body to detoxify and heal. Your body cannot detoxify and heal when you are under stress.  Another key stressor and toxin creator is an impaired digestive system. If you are not absorbing and assimilating nutrients, it puts another stress on the body. To help support the immune system and reduce stress, you can apply the Parasympathetic™ blend to the vagus nerve (behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone) before meals to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system “rest-and-digest” state.  To learn more about how Parasympathetic™ can support detoxification of the brain, click here.

Adrenal™: Our adrenal glands help determine and regulate the body’s stress response by secreting key hormones that regulate energy production and storage. Prolonged periods of stress can deplete our reserves of these hormones.  Much like adaptogenic herbs, Vibrant Blue Oils Adrenal™ blend helps increase the body’s ability to adapt to stress and maintain healthy adrenal function.:

Immune Support™ – To keep the immune system healthy, prevent illness or nip it in the bud once it starts, apply Immune Support™ 2- 3 times daily on the throat (diluted) or the bottom of the feet. This blend traces its origins to the bubonic plague when thieves were stealing the gold teeth out of the mouths of the dead. When they were apprehended, they were offered a lesser sentence in exchange for sharing how they avoided the illness. Their secret was this blend of hot oils that strengthen the immune system against flu, colds, and coughs as well as infections, viruses, bacteria, fungus, parasites, and microbes.

Thymus™ – The thymus gland, located in front of the heart, plays an important role in the immune system, maturing infection-fighting white blood cells made in the bone marrow. Stimulating the thymus by gently tapping on the gland (thymus thumping) or using essential oils is thought to increase the release of white blood cells. To stimulate immune function against infections, viruses and bacteria, apply 2-3 drops on the thymus (on breastbone at third rib) in a clockwise motion for 30 seconds and then stimulate the thymus by gently tapping.

Spleen™ – The spleen, located in the left upper abdomen, is an important part of the immune system. It helps fight certain bacteria, like those that cause pneumonia and meningitis and serves as a reservoir for blood, filtering and purifying the blood and lymph fluid that flow through it. A damaged spleen makes you more susceptible to infections. You can support the spleen by applying 2- 3 drops over the spleen (left side of the body, under breast) or around the earlobes.

Lymph™ – The lymphatic system is the body’s first line of defense against disease. It includes lymph nodes (with clusters found in the neck, chest, underarms, abdomen, and groin). Unlike the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system does not have its own central pump — it only moves as the muscles squeeze it along. If the lymphatic system becomes stagnant, waste and excessive toxins accumulate, impacting immunity. To increase circulation of white blood cells within the lymphatic system for optimal removal of waste from the cells, apply 2- 3 drops of Lymph™ each to sides of neck, lymph nodes under arms and around inguinal ligament (bikini line area – think where your leg creases when you lift it). This blend can be used liberally.

Histamine Balance™ –As you may know, Histamine is a chemical compound released by the cells in response to injury, allergic or inflammatory reactions, causing contraction of smooth muscle and dilation of capillaries.  While the release of histamine is a normal defense mechanism, an exaggerated histamine response can bind to cell receptor sites, causing irritation and chronic inflammation. This inflammatory response can cause sneezing, runny nose, watery, red, itchy eyes, rashes, breathing troubles such as wheezing, severe coughs, asthma, or hiccups. The goal is to balance, not block, the histamine response as histamine performs critical functions in body. The essential oils in the Histamine Balance blend are uniquely suited to help modulate excess histamine excretion, balancing histamine levels and helping to reset the immune response and reduce allergic reactions. To learn more about balancing the histamine reaction click here.



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About The Author

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.

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* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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Subscribe to Vibrant Blue Oils and receive weekly information on oils and how to use them. As a bonus, we’ll send out Beginner’s Guide to Essential Oils to your inbox immediately!