It is often said we take our health for granted, but the reality is that it is our underlying immune system that is the forgotten hero. It is our immune system that is challenged the most in times of stress, particularly chronic stress. Chronic stress is apparent after large scale disasters such as cyclones, hurricanes, floods and fires. Chronic stress and its effect on health is the price paid by our broader population, well after the clean-up.
The few years with a pandemic and then floods in Australia in 2022 were devastating, not only on property but also on the health of people within the affected communities. In 2011 our studios were in the epicentre of the flood affected communities of Brisbane and about 6 -7 months after the floods we started to see more and more clients affected by autoimmune flare ups and severe illnesses. As we face a series of more natural disasters i stop and wonder what else we will be facing in the health of clients and communities.
In this article we will talk briefly about:
// the immune system
// the autonomic nervous system (ANS)
// some ideas about managing the ANS
What are the elements of our immune system?
The immune system has two components:
// innate immunity – this includes non-specific things like your skin and mucus production. Innate immunity also includes inflammatory responses which create antigen-presenting cells that are used by adaptive immunity.
We have particular cells of our innate system called natural killer cells. These cells are part of our white blood cells. These natural killer cells generally detect and destroy cell mutations and tumors. The chemical response of stress discussed below, is known to affect and destroy these natural killer cells.
// adaptive immunity (also known as complementary immunity) – you acquire this as a result of immune challenges experienced by the innate immune system.
Adaptive immunity is acquired through exposure to viruses and bacteria, particularly when we are younger. The thymus is a gland behind the sternum and is responsible for the production of our T cells. A T cell is a type of white blood cell which defends the body from viruses and infections. The thymus starts to shrink in our late teens and early 20s, after that age we have an immune memory in our bodies innate immune system.
This is the reason why new viruses such as the coronavirus can be so challenging for populations. Essentially, we have not been inoculated (vaccinated) against that virus through previous exposure. Our bodies do not have the specialised memory T and B cells in order to defend against that virus. Please remember this is a very simple explanation and we could spend weeks going through the subtleties of the immune system.
What is stress?
Stress is how the brain and body react to a stimulus or demand. Stress can trigger a variety of physical and/or mental responses. The effects of stress can also be discriminatory, affecting us greater if we have lower socioeconomic status or if we have less control over our lives. These are the findings that came out of the famous Marmot study into Whitehall.
What I like about this study is that it highlights how important it is to be supportive of people and to create opportunities for our colleagues and clients, which allows them to feel a sense of control. Creating these opportunities for success and control is part of how we can manage our stress and also its resultant impact on our body’s immunity.
If you are interested in the topic you can watch this PBS video documentary, which is about one hour long Stress, Portrait of a Killer – Full Documentary (2008).
How does stress relate to our immune system?
When we experience stress, parts of our innate system (such as the TH cells) are undermined by the glucocorticoids (steroids) produced by the stress response. This results in a cascade of events that can lead to the immune system going haywire, with potential development of autoimmune conditions and cell mutations that lead to some types of cancers.
The cascade and some types of autoimmune diseases and how to handle them in a movement studio setting will be covered in greater detail in the Claiming Immunity course filmed for Pilates Anytime.
What is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and how does it relate to immunity?
The ANS is associated with the flight and fight response, though it is more than just that. We need a little bit of stress to get us moving and to get us out and about – this is essentially what happens through the somatic nervous system. However, imbalances in our ANS can lead to all sorts of health problems. Once again this is an area of health and wellbeing that is only just being understood.
The ANS has two components – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic system – which work together to regulate our:
// heart rate
// blood pressure
// digestive systems
// bowel and bladder
When we are stressed the sympathetic system steps up and:
// increases our heart rate
// increases the blood flow to our periphery – we need blood there to run away in case of danger, and this means increased pumping of the heart.
// decreases digestion and absorption of food and nutrients – these are put on hold
// increases our breath rate, though breaths become more shallow
The consequence of all this means that our body is not eliminating “fluids” which include inflammatory markers. As the inflammation builds up it starts to damage parts of our innate immune system, making us more vulnerable to illness and autoimmune conditions.
For those interested in the ANS including some of its functions and how to work with it, the Introduction to Neuro Anatomy course) covers this system in more detail.
What are some ideas about managing the stress response and assisting in immunity?
Breath is a key component for handling the immune system and its associated fluids. I understand this is a double blow for those recently impacted by the bushfires because they could not breathe deeply and properly from all of the smoke. Once the smoke has cleared, it is essential for people in these communities to achieve deep diaphragmatic breath with a focus on the inhale.
The inhale breath is important for a number of reasons, as detailed below.
It creates a vacuum by increasing the volume of the lungs and thoracic spine, in turn creating a low-pressure system in the thoracic cavity. This low pressure encourages fluids (think the lymphatic fluids of our immune system) to return to the venous system and back to the heart. This venous return encourages the recycling and elimination of the fluids of inflammation so that they do not build up and cause problems.
The diaphragm sits above the cisterna chyli, an important node of the lymphatic system, which also plays a role in lipid digestion. The movement of the diaphragm helps facilitate the movement of the lymph through this important node, once again encouraging the recycling and elimination of the fluids of inflammation.
I like this particular class from our spine and torso course as it provides some great ideas to release the thoracic spine and assist in breathing.
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