Can Stress Make Us Sick, and How Can Yoga Help?

How does stress impact our immune and inflammatory responses, and what role does yoga play in regulating our body’s response systems?

The words ‘stress’ and ‘inflammation’ can often be associated with purely negative implications, but the truth is that both can be helpful or unhelpful.

Stress and inflammation play a vital role in our body’s ability to defend itself and maintain homeostasis, but chronic, unchecked stress & inflammation leaves us more vulnerable to a range of complications and conditions. Let’s break it down to note where a natural body response becomes problematic.

Stress 101

Eustress vs distress

Stress is a natural physiological and psychological response to our ever-changing perceptions of our circumstances.

Exercise is a form of good physical stress that prompts our muscles to strengthen and lengthen. Good psychological stress can can feel energising, motivating, or even exciting. It helps us stay focussed and energised during a test or job interview, and give us those feelings of excitement & thrill on a first date or rollercoaster!

Distress is when the stress response adversely affects us. It can be prompted by just about anything that we perceive as being a threat to our physical or emotional wellbeing, or beyond our immediate coping resources, such as a death, relationship tension or separation, financial crisis, abuse or injury. It can include effects such as mood deterioration, shortness of breath, fatigue, sleep and appetite issues, headaches and feelings of overwhelm.

The body’s response to threats

When a stimuli or threat is perceived, our body is capable of producing chemicals that can help us adapt. In the case of a perceived threat, the body will move resources away from actions that it doesn’t deem necessary there and then (such as digestion) and towards the job-at-hand of keeping you alive. This is the Fight, Flight or Freeze response.

During this response, our body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated: adrenaline and cortisol chemicals are produced, our heart rate increases, our breath shallows and quickens, pupils dilate to hone in one particular thing, blood rushes away from extremities and digestive systems and towards muscles.

Evolutionarily, this helped us run from predators, hide from enemies or fight an attacker.

Unfortunately, the amygdala part of our brain (responsible for processing emotions around fear) can set off the alarm in non-life threatening situations, putting us into survival mode well before our rational mind has a chance to assess the situation. Put simply, our body can’t always distinguish between a situation that genuinely puts our lives at risk – such as jumping out of the way of an oncoming vehicle – and all the other things life throws at us every day such as deadlines, workloads, relationship problems, shuttling our children to daycare, or heavy traffic.

Our bodies are well-equipped to deal with short acute bursts of stress, but are not equipped to tolerate chronic, unrelenting stress with swirling stress chemicals ever-present.

“Between 70% – 90% of all conditions that a primary care doctor sees in any given day, are in some way related to stress” (Dr Rangan Chatterjee)

Read. That. Again.

Without a way to balance our nervous system and allow the Parasympathetic nervous system to take the lead (otherwise known as ‘Rest & Digest’ or ‘Feed & Breed’), the toll on our body is associated with increased risk of heart disease and stroke, obesity, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, mood & sleep disorders, and a reliance on addictive distractions such as alcohol, gambling, television, food, internet and nicotine. (Yes, there ‘s a big difference between consciously choosing to enjoy a TV programme for example, and being anaesthetised by an unconscious go-to habit)

Inflammation 101

Inflammation is generally a natural and helpful response to the presence of pathogens or physical or chemical injury. (but it can also be activated by processed food and other poor nutrition habits, oversensitivities/allergies and stress). It is part of our immune response.

We have specific immune cells that act as watchdogs to start the inflammation response when necessary to arrest invaders and heal damaged tissue. We can observe this in the way of heat, swelling and pain and these symptoms are designed to be short and adaptive, while our body recovers.

Much like stress, our body is well-suited to short bursts of acute inflammation, but not to long-term chronic inflammation and we know that chronic inflammation is the pathway to chronic disease.

Stress & Inflammation

The special cells (such as cytokines) and chemicals in our body (such as cortisol) designed to initiate inflammation can self-perpetuate under conditions of chronic stress, damaging healthy cell tissue, suppressing immunity and leaving us more prone to colds and flu and other infections, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, depression, digestive issues such as Irritable Bowel, and cancer.

Stress & Telomeres

Telomeres are the protective DNA-caps at the end of chromosomes. Each time a cell divides, the telomere shortens until tissue-ageing occurs. Telomeres can be replenished by an enzyme called telomerase, but this is also impacted by chronic stress.

In short, stress can quite literally make us sick and can even shorten our life!

The study of the interplay between our stress response (brain and nervous system), with our hormones and other chemicals (endocrine system) and our immune response is a relatively new field of science (perhaps a few decades old) called Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI for short).

Managing Inflammation

Given that inflammation can have multiple causes, it makes sense that a strategy involving multiple factors may be most beneficial, influencing inflammation directly, and indirectly via stress management. This may include:

  • Improving the quality of food that you eat (fresh, seasonal food with an emphasis on plants)
  • Improving sleep habits
  • Introducing small self-care daily routines into your day including mindful movement, pausing and resting, self-massage, getting fresh air and connecting to nature
  • Conscious breathing
  • Reducing exposure to screens (especially dramatic or violent depictions)
  • Finding more laughter
  • Find your ‘tribe’ and develop strong social ties that uplift and nourish you
  • Resolving long-standing resentments and other psychological issues

Yoga’s Contribution to the Management of Inflammation

The holistic healing nature of an integrated yogic practice, including asana, breathwork, and meditation, can play an important role in balancing the body’s biochemistry, and thus our vulnerability to chronic illness.

Mind-body practices are shown to modulate inflammatory markers such as cortisol, and help prevent our stress and inflammatory response from becoming hyperactive or maladaptive.

With yogic models of care coupled with an ayurvedic lifestyle – incorporating healthy self-care daily habits that honour the body and the connection to nature – we give our body its best chance to self-regulate, heal itself and reduce the risk of chronic illness.

This topic also beautifully demonstrates the interconnected nature of our mind, body and emotions, the power of a whole-of-person approach, and the yogic principle of not seeking quick-fix ‘hacks’, but rather introducing incremental and sustainable healthful habits and practices into all aspects of our life.

Written by Nicole Small, The Yoga Institute

Learn more about:

ayurveda, mind-body, psychoneuroimmunology, stress management, yoga therapy, yoga training

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