You may already be aware that stress weakens your immune system. You may have had personal experience with this, such as going through a particularly stressful period, which then led to illness. Even a brief stressful period resulting in a predictable cold sore illustrates how intuitively basic it is that stress directly affects the immune system.
The process is much more complicated than a “stress affects immunity” connection, and the full complexity of it is beyond the detail I go into here. It is crucial that you understand at least the basics, however. General knowledge of the link will save you time, money, and energy on well-meaning yet narrow-minded doctors who chase after every new virus, bacteria, parasite, yeast, or fungus that comes your way. Those specialists may say that any number of those conditions and complaints are the root of all your problems. They’re not.
Because of your weakened immune system due to Adrenal Fatigue, you will be susceptible for some time before balancing your bodily systems. You will need to know how to recognize the infection and how to treat yourself when something crops up.
My ultimate goal is always for people to be aware of the various symptoms of Adrenal Dysfunction and also the reasons for the symptoms. When life throws you a curveball—an injury, allergy, or illness—you’ll then have enough understanding to keep you from running to the doctor for a steroid shot or an antibiotic.
Doctors hate biochemical individuality
We are all different. We are all unique biochemical individuals, and as such, we will all develop our own idiosyncratic immune system symptoms.
Some of us get frequent illnesses and are repeatedly diagnosed with various viruses, like Epstein Barr Virus (EBV), mono, and (chronic) Lyme disease. Others of us simply catch each and every cold or flu bug that comes through our family, while even others of us develop allergies and sensitivities to substances (both environmental and food based).
Another subsection of patients tells me they “never get sick.” This may seem like a good thing on the surface, but the reality is more complex. Never getting sick is actually a red flag, which is telling us the underlying Adrenal Dysfunction may have weakened the immune system so severely that the person simply cannot generate any degree of the immune response at all.
“But I never catch a cold!”
The signs and symptoms of an illness such as a cold are a result of the fight between the virus, bacteria, yeast, fungus, etc. (let’s call whatever it is a “bug”) and your immune system. The runny nose, sore throat, congestion, cough, fever, and aches are not caused by the bug. These symptoms are a result of the body’s attempt to rid itself of the bug. The symptoms are actually a good thing–uncomfortable and inconvenient, yes, but good nonetheless.
When a patient reports never getting sick or catching a cold, I am somewhat cautious. The bugs to which they are exposed never stimulate an immune response, and thus, they never “get sick.” That’s a compromised immune system.
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I want you to understand why you may get sick all the time, or why you developed an allergy to your cat (even though you were raised with cats and were never allergic before), or maybe why that simple injury has developed into a chronic, nagging one. Adrenal Fatigue causes a loss of control of the immune system. To understand the lack of control, one must first understand a bit about the system itself. Don’t get caught up in the details if you don’t want to. Just stick to the basics, which are the three main arms of the immune system.
The first arm is the “innate” immune system. This is the first response system of immunity (the Marines, if you will). This part of the immune system is made up of some basic white blood cells (WBCs on your CBC blood work), something called natural killer cells (NK cells), and a complicated part of the immune system called “complement.”
The innate part of the immune system immediately goes to the area of infection or trauma, such as a wound. Its primary responsibility is damage control (anti-inflammation). After its assessment, the innate immune system then takes care of the decision-making process: which parts of the immune system should be called in for reinforcements.
When researchers investigate the immune systems of patients with Adrenal Dysfunction, CFS, and Fibromyalgia, they find numerous biochemical abnormalities in these immune cells and process. A fully functional, balanced innate immune response generates a controlled, well-orchestrated, well-strategized defense.
Contrast this with what actually happens in the immune system in these affected patients during infection or injury, and it appears more like sending a bunch of circus clowns out into battle. The result is an imbalanced, disorganized defense, created with no plan whatsoever: out of control inflammation and antibody production, poor infection fighting, and poor wound healing.
Th1 versus Th2
The other two arms of the immune system work in concert. They are referred to as Th1 and Th2. The “Th” part of the name stands for “T-helper,” which is a type of immune cell generated in the thymus gland. You can think of Th1 as the part of the immune system that fights problems inside cells (viruses, parasites, intracellular infections such as Lyme), and Th2 as fighting problems outside cells (creating antibodies that search for other pathogens).
Antibodies are a “memory” cell that, in the case of infections, can be manufactured in great numbers with efficiency. The purpose of this immune amplification is so the next time that particular infection/bug comes our way, we have immunity to it and can generate an extremely rapid response. Antibodies are highly specific and operate in a “lock and key fashion.” These cells work together in the body to generate a balanced attack on an infection or an injury.
The immune system under stress (Adrenal Fatigue)
The immune system undergoes a purposeful, predictable, and well-documented shift when the body is exposed to stress. We want the immune system to shift exactly the way it does because it’s lifesaving. Here’s how.
The first shift to take place occurs in the innate immune system, as I wrote above. Parts of the innate immune system actually become upregulated, whereas other parts get suppressed. This initiates the inflammatory process in response to injury. Acute, short-term inflammation is necessary to heal. It’s when the immune system gets stuck that it’s a problem because that leads to chronic inflammation, which prevents healing.
The Th1-Th2 Shift
The other part of the immune system that shifts have to do with the T helper cells. Depending on the general physiologic state of the body (i.e. a restful state or a stressed state) these T cells will “differentiate” down one pathway or another. Differentiation here means maturation. The decision of whether these young, naïve cells will mature into Th1 cells or Th2 cells is primarily controlled by the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
When the body is in a restful state (think of “rest and digest” here; normal cortisol levels) these cells will more likely mature into Th1 cells. On the other hand, when the body is in a stressed state (think of fight or flight; high cortisol) these cells will mature primarily into Th2 cells. During chronic stress, the immune system enters into what we call a Th1 to Th2 shift. The following are two results of this shift.
Weak cellular immunity: suppressed Th1
The first result of this Th1 to Th2 shift of the immune system in response to chronic stress is a weakening on the Th1 side. This is why the majority of patients with Adrenal Fatigue experience frequent illness. They tell me that they catch every virus that comes around, or that they’re just sick all the time. They complain of chronic sore throats, chronic congestion, flu-like symptoms, and low-grade fevers.
These symptoms are caused by the weakening of cellular immunity, and it makes people with Adrenal Fatigue more susceptible to injury that occurs inside the cells. This primarily refers to increased susceptibility to bugs that attack the body from within cells.
By definition, viruses attack by entering a cell, hijacking the cell, and then replicating and ramping up the infection; this includes viruses (like EBV, CMV, HHV6, and other herpes family viruses, Parvovirus, and more), certain bacteria (like mycoplasma, and Lyme), yeast (like candida albicans), and fungi. A weakness or susceptibility to these bugs generally means more frequent infection.
This issue is profound and powerful, and many doctors simply treat it as an immune system disorder. This means they are entirely missing that the immune system is suppressed on purpose, which is why the patient keeps getting these infections in the first place.
Overactive Th2 immunity
The second result of this Th1 to Th2 shift occurs in response to chronic stress and Adrenal Dysfunction by causing a strengthening, or overactivity, on the Th2 side. The result of this overactivity is increased antibody production.
Often patients complain of adult-onset allergies, exacerbation of their current environmental allergies or asthma, or the development of food allergies. This shift is also one of the most common underlying causes of the development of many autoimmune diseases. All of these conditions are the result of increased antibody production due to an overactivation of the Th2 side of the immune system, which is caused by Adrenal Fatigue.
My typical patient will have a frequent and recurrent illness, colds, cases of flu, catch every little bug that comes around, have chronic congestion, post-nasal drip, runny nose, allergies to the environment, allergies or sensitivities to foods, and have histamine-related issues. These patients are inflamed, which means chronic pain, arthritis, and wounds that won’t heal well. They may have even developed autoimmune diseases.
The invariable immune system dysfunction you likely have is a result of the chronic stress over time and Adrenal Fatigue. In other words, the immune system dysfunction is not the cause; it is the symptom. Treat the adrenals, and the immune system comes back online and in balance. A properly functioning immune system is crucial to proper well-being and healthy aging.
Correct this imbalance, and you will no longer suffer from chronic allergies and congestion (I have seen environmental allergies go away after a couple of seasons of support). You will no longer catch every bug that comes around. When you do happen to get sick, you will recover in a normal amount of time and no longer be in chronic pain. Injuries will heal faster, and arthritis will be more manageable. Recurrences of chronic Lyme or Epstein Barr with lessen or disappear altogether.
All of this may sound unbelievable. You’ve been told allergies don’t go away, that your problem is reactivated Epstein Barr virus, or candida is causing all of those symptoms, and more.
I’m here to tell you that any well-meaning practitioner or clinician who tells you those things are wrong. Yes, they are symptoms, viruses, and conditions, and yes, they are miserable. But Adrenal Fatigue must be addressed, first and foremost, before recurrence, severity, and these symptoms can be healed once and for all.