Stress Ages the Immune System, but Supplements and Lifestyle Factors Can Preserve Immune Function Under Stressful Conditions
Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (June 2022)
Lifestyle Medicine Update (June 21, 2022)
In the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published in June 2022, researchers showed that stress — in the form of traumatic events, job strain, everyday stressors, and facing discrimination — accelerates aging of our immune system, which potentially increases our risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and illness from infections such as COVID-19. As pointed out by Dr. Eric Klopack, a lead study author, “Age-related changes in the immune system play a critical role in declining health.” “This study helps clarify mechanisms involved in accelerated immune aging.”
We know that as people age, the immune system naturally begins a dramatic decline in functional ability, as the immune cells wear out and are not replaced as well by fresh troops or what is known as naïve – T cells. This leaves us prone to an increased risk of cancer and more serious infections. The June 2022 study has now shown us that stress plays a key role in accelerating the age-related decline of the immune system we are referring to here. This large study involving almost 6,000 adults over 50 years of age showed that people with higher stress scores had more immune cells that were worn out and not functioning, or functioning poorly, and they had fewer new, fresh naïve immune cells being generated in their body. These results remained true even after controlling for education, smoking, alcohol consumption, body fat, race, and ethnicity. Simply stated, higher amounts of chronic stress from social stress, stressful life events, chronic stress, and everyday and lifetime discrimination weaken the immune system making us prone to more severe outcomes from infections, such as COVID-19 infection, as well as potentially increasing the risk of cancer.
So, that is the bad news. The good news is that I have cited research over the years showing that positive nutrition and lifestyle strategies can help to enhance our immune system function. And this study has shown the same thing. In this study individuals who had healthier diets and who exercised regularly had better immune health, even if their stress scores were high. As Dr. Koplack stated, “what this means is people who experience more stress tend to have poorer diet and exercise habits, partly explaining why they have more accelerated immune aging.” Some of the immune aging can be prevented by improving diet and lifestyle factors. I have previously cited research explaining the effect of a healthy diet and exercise on immunity as well as how certain vitamins and minerals are required to strengthen and support our immune function (vitamins C, E, A, D, zinc, selenium, folic acid, etc.). The same is true for the unique immune strengthening effects of other herbs and supplements such as Astragalus, Milk thistle, Indole-3-carbinol, Reishi mushroom extract, and other medicinal mushrooms. But people experiencing high levels of stress should also know about the studies showing that certain adaptogen herbs can strengthen the immune system and tone down the negative impact of stress on the human body and brain. For example, a great article in the Journal of Clinical Medicine in 2021 showed that supplementation with the herb Ashwagandha improved immune system health in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study of healthy adults. Compared to the placebo group, the group given 60 mg of Ashwagandha extract capsules per day showed a significant increase in the levels of immunoglobins (IgA, IgM, IgG, IgG2, IgG3, and IgG4), which are the first line of defense against infections in the lungs, respiratory passages, intestinal tract and elsewhere. These individuals also secreted higher amounts of chemicals (cytokines) that enhance the immune-fighting action of lymphocytes, natural killer cells, and other key immune cells that fight infection and help identify and kill emerging cancer cells. There were no adverse events reported in the study. The researchers stated, “WS (Ashwagandha) extract significantly improved the immune profile of healthy subjects by modulating the innate and adaptive immune systems. Boosting the immune system of people at risk of infection and during widespread infections can be targeted with WS (Ashwagandha) extract.”
For individuals who are under stress, I personally like a combination supplement that includes Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, and Schisandra. These three adaptogen herbs work synergistically to help mitigate the impact of stress on the body and brain, including supporting better immune health when we are under stress, which can help prevent or offset the accelerated decline of immune function commonly seen when people are under stress. These nutrition and lifestyle factors are important considerations if extending your healthy life expectancy and quality of life are on your wish list. You have to take proactive steps to keep your immune function operating at peak levels as you age and during stressful periods when it is highly prone to becoming compromised.
I have included the references for these two important research studies in the text below.
1. Tharakan A et al. Immunomodulatory effect of Withania somnifera (Ashwaganda) extract- A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial with an open label extension on healthy participants. J Clin Med, 2012; 10 (16): 3644. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8397213/
2. Klopack E.T., et al. Social stressors associated with age-related T lymphocyte percentages in older US adults: Evidence from the US Health and Retirement Study. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2022; 119 (25) https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.2202780119
3. Stress accelerates immune aging, study finds. Science Daily. June 13, 2022. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/06/220613150648.htm
Eat Smart, Live Well, Look Great,
Dr. James Meschino
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. James Meschino, DC, MS, ROHP, is an educator, author, and researcher having lectured to thousands of healthcare professionals across North America. He holds a Master’s Degree in Science with specialties in human nutrition and biology and is recognized as an expert in the field of nutrition, anti-aging, fitness, and wellness as well as the author of numerous books.