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How Burnout Affects Your Immune System

Jan 6, 2021

Dr. Jeremy Hayman, ND

Dr. Jeremy Hayman, ND

NATUROPATHIC DOCTOR

We all know that the immune system is in charge of fending off the ill effects of viruses, colds and flu’s. More importantly however, helping to ensure it is properly positioned to do its job is largely dependant upon its relationship to stress. If you wish to bolster confidence and maximize what this powerhouse can do for you, then knowing how burnout affects your immune system can make all the difference between being continually sick or staying healthy.

Burnout is defined as a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Not only is burnout felt as overall exhaustion, it creates severe and debilitating fatigue directly on to the immune system as well. From an HPA (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal) axis standpoint, the functional implications of an overdrawn system at any point within this critical system (the HPA axis is the master hormone regulator, so impacts almost every single aspect of the human body) can wreak havoc on immunity. It’s only by supporting the HPA axis that a person can truly begin to recover from the bounds of burnout, but also the implied limitations of an under functioning immune system.

So let’s think of it like this: when you become chronically over stressed, not only do your anti stress capabilities begin to fail (have you ever heard of or experienced adrenal fatigue or exhaustion?) but the influential control on the immune system also begins to falter. During the course of partial or complete burnout, the HPA axis struggles to release and respond to an otherwise homeostatic balance of anti stress chemicals. In turn, as chronic stress sets in, the body can no longer resolve or recover from being overtaken from continual stressed induced insults.

The result?

Full physiological, mental, and emotional resources being redirected from other key body systems toward the continual attempts of trying to buffer a broken HPA system.

From an immune system perspective, in the face of chronic stress, the body no longer invests energy or function into immune system balance. If you’ve ever heard of ‘fight or flight’ then you’ll understand that when a ‘threat’ (AKA stress) is present, one of the last priorities of the body is to worry about ensuring the immune system is primed and ready to defend against infection. Acutely, once a threat has dissipated, the body will physiologically re-heighten the immune system back to its regular function.

Chronically however, if stress never leaves (or if the body is unable to recover), immunity will also be chronically ignored. The end result? A heightened susceptibility to getting sick, staying sick longer, and a slower, less desirable recovery process. We could talk about specific immune cells (such as NK cells, WBC’s and others) that have been scientifically proven to be suppressed in the face of stress, or how negative thoughts and emotions directly reduce immune system function, however it’s enough to know that burnout can significantly impact both the short and long term operation of this critical and necessary aspect of health. For these reasons, and more, it’s paramount that burnout is addressed, and a healthful recovery plan from it be properly supported.

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