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The conclusion of this 3-part series highlights how stress reduction through prayer and quietude are vital components for optimized immune function. Parts 1 & 2 focused on some of the physiological aspects that are essential to building and maintaining strong immunity, but we must also address our emotional, mental and spiritual health as well to support proper immune function.

Stress & Symptoms

Let’s first define stress. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, stress is “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.” Note that these stress factors can be internal or external to us. According to statistics published in July 2014 from the American Institute of Stress, 77% of people polled reported that they regularly experience physical symptoms from stress, and 73% reported they regularly experience psychological symptoms from stress.1

Types of Stress & Related Symptoms:

  1. Physical—includes fatigue, insomnia, frequent infections, rapid pulse, GI problems (diarrhea, constipation, nausea), headaches, muscle tension (especially in the neck), pain from injuries
  2. Psychological (Mental/Emotional)—includes fear, depression, anxiety, mood swings, brain-fog and inability to focus, memory problems
  3. Chemical/Biochemical—food poisoning, toxic mold, allergic and autoimmune reactions, skin rashes, triggers from inflammatory foods, pesticides/GMOs, radiation, EMFs, pathogens, alcohol & drugs

Symptoms are not the problem; they are the results of the problem, and once symptoms appear, there is already a substantial amount of dysfunction in the body. Unfortunately, the current medical model is based on treating symptoms with prescription drugs instead of addressing the underlying issues of WHY someone has symptoms. Unfortunately, this results in chronic, unmanaged stress which continually breaks down the immune system and ultimately leads to disease.

Stress Response

More than ever before, especially since the Coronavirus pandemic, we are faced with unrelenting stress.  This especially impacts the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the adrenal glands (part of the endocrine or hormonal system) that produce multiple steroidal hormones as a response to stress.

The cortisol hormone is particularly important because when we are in a continual state of stress from physical, emotional and/or biochemical triggers, the “fight or flight” response becomes perpetual and results in an overstimulation of cortisol. This inhibits the body’s ability to revert to a state of ease under the parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, the demand to manage the stress response is greater than the body’s ability to adapt, which ultimately results in adrenal dysfunction that very negatively affects immune system regulation and function (and all the body’s metabolic functions).

In a Pub Med Central study from 2015 entitled “Current Directions in Stress & Human Immune Function”, it was noted that chronic elevations of cortisol, among other stress hormones, leads to an increase of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which weakens immune function. And older adults have more difficulty in regulating the cortisol response to stress, which puts them at further risk of a cytokine response due to compromised immunity.2   As discussed in part 1 of this series, we can clearly see that the deficiency of Vitamin D and Zinc, coupled with chronic stress, significantly raises the risk of improper immune response with inflammation, and the ability to resist infections from viruses, bacteria, and all other types of pathogens is reduced.

Stress Management

Stress is unavoidable; it’s a reality in our daily lives, but it’s how we manage stress that’s key. We need to remember that we must have balance to our mind, body and spirit to have healthy immune function and overall proper balance in our lives.

Practicing methods of stress reduction regularly will help the body’s physiological response to stress by improving cortisol levels, balancing all steroidal hormones, and helping the body shift from the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). Stress reduction is not about feeling less stressed (although that’s certainly a welcomed outcome), it’s about our body’s adaptation and response to stress.

One of the most effective ways to reduce the body’s stress response is to pray and set aside time for quietude daily. This needs to be as routine as the cup of coffee most people begin their day with. Research has shown incredibly positive effects of prayer and quietude on the nervous system and stress response. Dr. Herbert Benson, cardiologist and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute and author of the book “The Relaxation Response” studied the physiological state during prayer, and found that the body easily switched from the sympathetic (fight-flight) to the parasympathetic (rest-digest) state. Also, dopamine (a key neurotransmitter that is associated with happiness, high energy and improved focus and memory) levels were increased, giving a more fulfilling experience from prayer. He also concluded that long term practice of prayer even has the ability to rewire the brain!3

Kenneth Pargement, PhD of Bowling Green State University, experimented with people that experienced migraine headaches. He split them into 3 groups: 1 group participated in prayer and spiritual exercises, the 2nd group practiced “standardized mindfulness” i.e. positive phrases and thoughts, and the 3rd group practiced simple relaxation techniques. He concluded that the group that practiced prayer and spirituality yielded the most pain relief from the migraines.4  There’s also been numerous other studies that have shown both physical and emotional benefits such as reduced heart rate, lower blood pressure, decreased pain, and less anxiety/depression from prayer and quietude.

Conclusion

In this 3-part series, we looked at the effects of physical, emotional, and chemical stress on the immune system, and some simple ways to increase functionality by:

  1. Key nutrients—Vitamin D & Zinc
  2. Exercise—with a focus on stretching & breathing
  3. Daily prayer & quietude

I encourage you all to incorporate these simple and effective tips into your daily lives so they become new habits that will give your body, mind and spirit the tools it needs to boost immunity and protect against potential harmful infections. Despite this current crisis, we can resolve to feel more alive—and even thrive!

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Resources:

1 https://www.stress.org/daily-life

2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465119/

3 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/heart-and-soul-healing/201303/dr-herbert-benson-s-relaxation-response

4 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1359105313508459

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