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  • Susan Koursaris, NTP, BCHN®

“Grief Stress” & Your Immunity



Stress is a broad term that can encompass many things, to varying degrees. While there are many kinds of stress we can encounter, one type of stress impacts your immune system particularly hard: you guessed it, GRIEF.

 

The body releases hormones in response to stressful situations to protect it from harm. These hormones effect your digestion, blood sugar regulation, and immunity (among other things), as a short-term protective strategy. Stress hormones are regulated by the brain and therefore, emotions and feelings can drive what I refer to as “grief-stress.” This can include but is not limited to, feelings of depression. Depression is understandably associated with grief, but staying in this state can get our bodies stuck in physiological strain.  

 

Let’s think about the opposite for a minute. Ever wonder how you can go on vacation to someplace beautiful, eat and drink whatever you want, and you might find your mood is still high, and you sleep great?? You seem to just “feel” awesome and might even lose a pound or two without really exercising?! This is how a body’s rest-and-digest state looks. Strong digestion, clear thinking, restful sleep, and high energy levels are all supported by a strong immune system.

 

Conversely, back in the “grief-stressed” life, you struggle to do “all the things” like eat right, get good sleep and exercise, and you still deal with stubborn belly fat, interrupted sleep, varying levels of fatigue, and unhealthy food cravings.

 

What the heck is going on??

 

During a time of grief, the body responds by activating cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. Studies have found that remaining in this fight-or-flight state, actually suppresses immune function, allowing infections to occur. On the other side of this stress response, these hormones can lose the ability to control an immune response, allowing autoimmune diseases to progress. [1]

 

This is why you may find yourself not sleeping well and getting sick often, shortly after a stressful event.

 

The stress of bereavement temporarily shuts down the immune system. This is your body’s incredible way of trying to protect you from the devastating wound of loss. Cortisol is increased, leaving your immune system “paralyzed,” for a time. However, if this goes on for too long, you can experience burn out symptoms such as fatigue, on-going depression, weight gain, poor sleep, poor concentration, digestive dysfunction, and the list goes on. All of this perpetuates a vicious cycle, where stress feeds your symptoms and symptoms feed your stress.

 

What is a griever to do??

 

You can try to ignore your “grief-stress” (like I tried), but your body cannot and will not (as I found out). Realize that “grief-stress” is a necessary process your body goes through, but it is not made to continue in that state. The cycle must be disrupted.

 

You can do this by making small changes. Don’t feel like you have to change it all in one day. “Grief-stress” had a gradual effect on you, and it will take gradual change to reverse it. Focus on getting 8-9 hours of sleep (magnesium, L-theanine and melatonin can help if you have trouble falling asleep). Cut down on refined sugar, as this also suppresses immune function. Channel your emotions into healthy hobbies such as painting, journaling, or volunteering. We need community to thrive! One step at a time. Small changes = big impact!

 

You can also support your adrenal / hormone health during this time by increasing your intake of vitamin B1 and taking herbal adaptogens such as Ashwagandha to help bring stress hormones back into balance.

 

Because being chronically stressed leads to a suppressed immune system, taking supplements may be necessary, from time to time. Vitamin C, D, Selenium and Zinc, are key players that directly support healthy immunity. [2] Note that Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to autoimmune disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, depression, infectious diseases, among many others. [3] Getting at least 20 minutes of sunshine, at midday, can give you the recommended daily amount your body needs (approx. 800 IU/day). For those of us in the not-so-sunny northern states, it’s best to supplement with vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), which is the more bioavailable form the body needs.

 

Immunity is the basis for protection against sickness and disease. Keeping it strong will support a resilient emotional state, making your grief journey a bit more bearable. Always check with a qualified mental health provider if you think you’re struggling with depression. Understand that your body’s physical state is intertwined with your emotional one. There is a time and place for all the stages of grief but be mindful that there is also “work” to be done to preserve your physical health, even during these stages. Your amazing body has the power to reverse what has been done, provided you give it the tools it needs.


You can keep your immune system strong, despite the stress of grief.


 

References

 

[1] Bucsek, M. J., Giridharan, T., MacDonald, C. R., Hylander, B. L., & Repasky, E. A. (2018). An overview of the role of sympathetic regulation of immune responses in infectious disease and autoimmunity. International journal of hyperthermia : the official journal of European Society for Hyperthermic Oncology, North American Hyperthermia Group, 34(2), 135–143. https://doi.org/10.1080/02656736.2017.1411621

 

[2] Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. (2023) Dietary Supplements for Immune Function and Infectious Diseases. Dietary Supplements for Immune Function and Infectious Diseases - Health Professional.

 

[3] Haines, S. T., & Park, S. K. (2012). Vitamin D supplementation: what's known, what to do, and what's needed. Pharmacotherapy32(4), 354–382. https://doi.org/10.1002/phar.1037

 

 

MEDICAL DISCLAIMER: This content is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of the advice or treatment from a medical physician. The reader/viewer of this content should consult their doctor or qualified health professional regarding specific questions about their general health, including mental health. Wholly Heart Nutrition LLC does not assume responsibility for possible health consequences of any person(s) reading or following the information in this educational content. The reader/viewer of this content, especially if taking any prescription or OTC medications, should consult their physician before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.



 

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