Chronic Stress and the Immune System

By Dr Guy Ashburner | April 2, 2020

Chronic Stress and the Immune System

The spinal cord as organizer of disease processes” Korr IM. J Am Osteopath Assoc. 1976 Sep;76(1):35-45

The stress response is a natural response to help us deal with challenging situations. When the stress
response is triggered specific physiological processes within the autonomic nervous system are set
off to help your body cope with the situation. The sympathetic nervous system is one of the two
divisions of the autonomic nervous system which effects heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow
to the skeletal muscles, perspiration, dilation of the pupils, and depression of gastrointestinal
activity.

Many factors contribute to stress. Recent research has linked negative thoughts and emotions and
feelings of helplessness to impaired immune responses which may contribute to the activation of the “fight-or-flight” stress response and delay the healing process. When the body is stressed, the sympathetic nervous
system contributes to the fight or flight response. The body shifts its energy resources toward
fighting off a life threat, or fleeing from an enemy. The SNS signals the adrenal glands to release
hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol’s positive action to reduce inflammation in the
body can turn against you if your levels are too high for too long. The elevated levels may actually
suppress the effectiveness of the immune system e.g. lower the number of lymphocytes (white
blood cells that help fight off infection). As the lymphocyte level is lower we may become more
susceptible to infections, viruses, the common cold and flu. A chronically activated stress response
may accelerate the progression of chronic illness. Over time this can lead to chronic fatigue and
exhaustion.

In 1974, physiologist Dr. Korr proposed that “spinal lesions” (reduced mobility in the thoracic and
lumbar spine)) are associated with exaggerated sympathetic nervous system activity. For example a
hunched posture with reduced mobility of the thoracic spine may overstimulate the sympathetic
ganglion housed in that part of the spine which may put your nervous system into a stress response.
The sympathetic nervous system spreads throughout the entire body, affecting every type of tissue
and the messages from all the tissues e.g. skin, muscle, blood vessels, glands and lymph vessels etc.
Any interference to the nervous system makes a person more susceptible to illness. The spine is
designed to be in a natural healthy position which allows for normal biomechanical movement.

These factors enable the nervous system to communicate effectively with organs and systems
throughout the body. A spine/vertebra with poor mobility may alter the body’s potential to heal
because of how physiologically intertwined the spine and its function is to the entire human body.
Osteopathy may help the body to heal and regulate itself by removing any barriers to recovery and
encouraging a re-balancing of the internal environment via external manipulation. The purpose of
osteopathic spinal manipulation is to improve posture and movement/function of the spine and the
result is the nervous system may be positively affected. By working on the areas of the spine where
the autonomic nervous system emerges, osteopaths may encourage a re-balancing between the
sympathetic and parasympathetic components. Osteopaths can also work on associated areas using
a range of techniques to help reduce muscle fascial tension and pain, and restriction. There are
exercises and postural advice that can be suggested to help maintain the body’s equilibrium and
manage the physical effects of stress. Ultimately, effective stress management via a multidisciplinary
approach is recommended to deal with stress long term, but those physical effects need to be
addressed to allow for the lifestyle changes to really make a difference to your body.

Research shows that stress is a common cause of the onset of physical pains and the development of
other health issues. Overloading your body systems with stressful states such as anxiety, lack of
sleep, lots of caffeine or even poor posture can lead to dysfunction and altered function of digestion,
immune system response, reproduction, mood, emotion, stress as well as energy storage and
expenditure.

When you have adjusted the physical to its normal demands, nature supplies the remainder.” AT Still.M.D.