Support Immunity & Improve Health by Reducing Stress

May 12, 2020
Support Immunity Improve Health by Reducing Stress


For many of us these days, we’re living in a new “normal.” Mandated stay-at-home quarantining can make life stressful, whether we’re confined with other people or we’re alone. In addition to confinement, many of us are also facing the stress of financial insecurity.

Well before the current pandemic, stress was recognized as a serious problem in the U.S. A Gallup poll in 2017 found that 8 out of 10 Americans were reportedly afflicted with chronic stress. By June 2019, according to Dr. Michael Ashworth, PhD, 75-90% of all medical office visits were for stress-related ailments.

Stress has been linked to six of the leading causes of death in the U.S. including:

• heart disease
• cancer
• lung disease
• accidents
• cirrhosis of the live

If this was our national condition before the COVID-19 pandemic, then it is more important than ever that we seriously assess how we’re living. We need to take daily proactive measures to manage stress, improve our health and support our immunity.

Table of Contents

How is Stress Related to Immunity?
What Can We Do About Stress?
Exercises to Reduce Stress & Support Immunity
Recommended Resources

How is Stress Related to Immunity?

When something stressful triggers us, it can activate the sympathetic nervous system, preparing us for emergency action. This physiological “fight-or-flight” response can help us deal with an immediate threat, but as Dr. Ashworth points out, as long as the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the healing activity of the parasympathetic nervous system is impeded.

Prolonged and chronic stress can degrade our health and immunity. We may feel habitually irritable, nervous, unsociable, avoid responsibilities, develop poor eating and sleeping habits, and become more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. When the sympathetic nervous system is turned off, however, and parasympathetic activities are activated, the body’s ability to heal, recover and regenerate itself are amplified.

Autonomic Nervous System
Fight or Flight
Rest, Digestion and Healing
Heart rate goes up
Blood pressure increases
Respiration accelerates
Sugar released into blood
Stress hormones increase

Heart rate goes down
Blood pressure decreases
Respiration slows down

Blood sugar is stored
Immune activities increase

Long-term stress can worsen pre-existing chronic diseases such as high blood pressure or diabetes. Stress can manifest in additional serious health problems, including depression, heart disease, obesity and gastrointestinal problems. The negative effects of stress on our gut condition can in turn weaken our immune system.

What Can We Do About Stress?

We can’t always control our external circumstances – especially during a pandemic – but we can take charge of our internal environment. Healthy change begins from within.

Start with the aspects of your life most directly under your control and consider how they influence your whole overall condition. These include things like exercise, diet, social interactions, entertainment choices, and self-care routines. Something as simple as going for a 10-minute walk, doing 10 squats, or doing 10 shoulder-rolls can help to stimulate your nervous system and circulation. Start tracking how you feel each day and notice correlations between what you eat, when you sleep, and how other activities influence the way you feel. Become a researcher who studies yourself!

If you want to support your overall wellbeing and immune system function, a great place to start is with gut health. Thousands of years ago Hippocrates, known as the first physician in the Western world, is thought to have said “All disease begins in the gut.”

Dr. Emeran Mayer, MD, who wrote The Mind-Gut Connection, points out that since ancient times many Eastern healing traditions have recognized the importance of the gut and brain relationship. Until recently, however, Western medicine seemed to have evolved away from Hippocrates’ point of view.

Thanks to research in the last 20 years, Western medicine is emphasizing the importance of intestinal condition in supporting mental health and immune system function, as well as more obvious benefits like good digestion and overall physical health.

Many researchers now refer to the gut as our “second brain.” The gut and the brain maintain constant two-way communication via our nervous system, linking the emotional and cognitive centers of our brain with intestinal functions. Inside our intestines are microbiota, trillions of micro-organisms that moderate and influence these communications. Our microbiota are constantly signaling the brain and receiving signals from the brain by neural, hormonal and immune means.

Under conditions of prolonged stress, when the healing activities of the parasympathetic nervous system are suppressed, our microbiome has a hard time staying healthy. Without a healthy microbiome, our immune system can’t function properly. Things are likely to get even worse because of all the negative health habits often associated with a high-stress lifestyle. (The Mind-Gut Connection)

Knowing that stress can negatively affect our immune system, we need to make time to manage our stress, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and choose habits that support a healthy gut.

Exercises to Reduce Stress & Support Immunity

Here are some exercises that will help you increase circulation in your abdomen, reduce feelings of stress, and refresh your body and brain.

Warm up your abdomen

Two very simple but effective ways to quickly de-stress are Dahnjon Tapping and Intestine Exercise. Both are commonly used at the beginning of Body & Brain classes as a way to stop thinking about the stressful outside world and to refocus on how your body feels. These exercises also can help you bring extra healthy blood circulation to your gut. We recommend practicing at least 5 minutes for each. Follow the links here to our videos, or go to our Youtube channel, Body & Brain TV.

Improve head-to-toe circulation

Body tapping from head to toe is another effective way to de-stress, let go of thinking and focus on your body. Use your fingertips on the head, face and neck. For arms, torso and legs, use slightly cupped hands with fingers together and hands slightly rounded to avoid slapping.

This is also a mindfulness exercise, so be sure to notice how every part of your body feels. Most people love the refreshing feeling that body tapping can bring. For a guided body tapping session, try our Quick Class.

Accumulate energy with core body strength

Sleeping Tiger posture is done lying down, and is great for developing abdominal strength and circulation. It looks easy, but it does take some core strength – start with just a few minutes per day and gradually build up to 15 minutes.

The secret of the Tiger is to keep your spine flat to the mat, balance your legs over your abdomen, then relax all muscles as much as possible, focusing your mind on your abdomen. Keep scanning for tense muscles, and direct them to relax. Breathe deeply and calmly.

Slow breathing

Slow, deep breathing is a great method for reducing and managing stress. According to the WebMD Medical Reference, many researchers think that it can help to reduce stress hormones, and it can measurably lower your heart rate and blood pressure.

In Body & Brain classes we typically practice slow deep breathing in two ways:

Chest Breathing, slowly expanding and releasing the chest while breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. This can be practiced in a standing, sitting, or lying down posture. If lying down, open your arms about 45 degrees away from the body, palms up, and extend the legs about shoulder-width apart.

In Dahnjon (Abdominal) Breathing, expand and relax the lower abdomen while inhaling and exhaling through the nose. Dahnjon breathing may be practiced with hands on the lower abdomen, and legs may be crossed while lying down. If you feel comfortable in the chest, Dahnjon breathing can also be practiced in Sleeping Tiger posture, or as a seated meditation.

Tai Chi and Qigong moving meditation

Meditation is highly recommended by medical professionals for reducing stress. If you’re already sitting too much while self-quarantined, a moving meditation like Tai Chi or qigong may be best for you.

Tai chi refers to the balance of energy in Nature and all living things, and qigong is the study of energy. In Body & Brain, we combine these for a practice in which the whole body moves with energy. Through this practice, you’ll develop your ability to sense, circulate and connect with the natural energy inside of you. Try a simple short qigong exercise here or follow qigong master ChungSuk’s “Earth qigong” form. For a more in-depth introduction, try Master Yoo’s “Tai Chi & Qigong Basics: DahnMuDo” series at Body & Brain TV.

Recommended Resources

In addition to Body & Brain classes, these resources will be helpful:
“7 Meditation Tips for Digestion: Body & Brain Podcast #28”
The Good Gut, Erica Sonnenberg, PhD and Justin Sonnenberg, PhD (2015, Penguin)
The Mind-Gut Connection, Emeran Mayer, MD (2016, HarperCollins)
The Secret Life of Your Microbiome, Susan Prescott, MD, PhD and Alan Logan, MD (2017, New Society)
10% Human, Alanna Collen (2016, HarperCollins)

Written by Susan Henry
Susan Henry is a certified health coach, yoga and tai chi-qigong instructor who leads a team of Body & Brain Foundation volunteers in San Diego County. A former federal chief information officer, she decided to re-focus on integrative health practices as a way of paying forward the benefits she had received through Body & Brain training.