Adrenal Health and The Immune System: The Missing Link You Need to Know About
Many people don’t realize that worry and/or fear can cause immense stress on your body and actually weaken your immune system. And when that happens, you leave yourself open to catching more illnesses that are circulating. Because your adrenal glands control your body’s ability manage stress, the link between adrenal health and the immune system is a crucial one.
It’s absolutely essential to practice mindfulness, set emotional boundaries, and prioritize your health and wellness—so your body’s response to incoming invaders, such as viral and bacterial infections, isn’t weakened. So, in light of all the current concern about immune health and preventing the spread of viral illnesses, let’s take a closer look at how stress impacts your immune system and what you can do about it.
The Connection Between Adrenal Health and The Immune System
I remember an especially stressful time in the early years of my practice. I had been working really long, hard days, and I had some tough cases that took up a lot of my thoughts. I also had a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old at the time, so they demanded all of my attention when I was home.
I was exhausted, but I had no time to worry about it. Ultimately, I decided that I should take a week off around Christmas, as I missed my kids and needed some rest. I was home for only one day when I was hit with the flu, and it lasted a full 10 to 14 days. Unbelievably, it went away the day I was scheduled to return to work. I kept wondering where I had contracted it. Even though I had seen numerous flu cases in the weeks prior, my immune system never gave me any hint that it was coming. But the minute I shut off my brain, it hit me—and it hit me hard. I could barely walk and my fever was up above 103°F.
The problem was that I was so overworked and overstressed that I was experiencing adrenal fatigue. My body was so exhausted from keeping minor threats away that when a big threat snuck past the trap, my immune system completely missed it. I had tricked my body so many times with silly worries of a “bear attack” that when I needed my immune system the most, it failed to catch the flu before the flu caught me. Had I not had adrenal fatigue, I would have likely developed less severe symptoms from the illness.
Has this ever happened to you? You’re running along with your busy lifestyle, rushing to meet all of your daily demands and responsibilities that you miss the warning signs of an impending illness. Or maybe you’re about to leave to go on a much-needed vacation and desperately trying to wrap up a major project at work. You take a break or leave for the vacation when … BAM! You’re hit with an illness that causes you to miss out on all the fun and leaves you unable to enjoy your time off.
As frustrating as this can be, and as busy as your daily life can be, I want to encourage you to remember that your immune system is there to help you, and it needs to be rested and on alert to keep you well. If you find that when you get sick you experience more severe symptoms, it’s time to address your body’s stress response and think about your adrenal gland health.
How Adrenal Fatigue Health Impacts Your Immune System
Your immune system is responsible for keeping you safe from invading organisms, just as our front lines protect us from enemies in a war. They may fire warning shots or send out a bunch of troops to warn the enemy, or they may hide and secretly attack when the impact is greatest. And just like our armed forces, your body has intelligence (your adrenal glands) behind the front lines that determines which threats are the most dangerous and attacks the greatest threats first.
But what happens when you have adrenal fatigue? What, exactly, is the link between poor adrenal health and the immune system?
Well, along with your brain, your adrenal glands work in your body’s intelligence department. This means that it receives a threat and determines its value. When your adrenal glands trigger your immune system, it creates an inflammatory response that then triggers your white blood cells and other immune complexes to flood to the area to protect you.
Stress, Cortisol, and The Immune Response
Consider this scenario for a moment: You’ve just escaped a bear encounter in the woods. When you hear a noise that you perceive may be from another bear, your immune system senses that the bear could become a valid threat and releases cortisol as its first line of defense, resulting in a temporary inflammatory response. Then yet another sound may prompt an alert, so your immune system prepares for defense again resulting in another inflammatory response. But if no bear appears, your immune system relaxes but waits for another potential bear to appear.
So, what does this mean in terms of adrenal health and the immune system? During this phase of adrenal fatigue, your immune system stays on alert and you rarely get sick. Why? Well, every potential threat is immediately addressed and demolished. But as your adrenal fatigue progresses, you do become sick every so often—and it’s usually more severe. The inflammation is always present as a baseline, so the white blood cells and immune complexes become somewhat immune to a new threat. The troops are already there, so why send more?
Think back to my example of the horrible bout of flu I had. It hit me while I was on vacation because I was calmer, meaning my adrenal glands were allowed to rest. And what happens when your exhausted adrenal glands finally get a chance to rest? Your exhausted immune system also relaxes and doesn’t pay as much attention to invaders, which is when viruses can hit you—hard.
In fact, studies have confirmed the undeniable connection between stress and a compromised immune system. Researchers surveyed more than 175 people about difficult situations they had experienced in the preceding year. Then, they administered nasal drops containing the common cold virus.
After checking the subjects to see who actually caught the cold, the researchers noted that those who had experienced stress were twice as likely to develop the cold. Moreover, additional tests showed that the immune systems of subjects who had developed the cold virus had grown less sensitive to cortisol. The decreased sensitivity to cortisol allowed inflammation to thrive, resulting in increased likelihood of developing the cold. 
The takeaway here? When you’re in a state of stress, your immune system loses its ability to fight off bacteria and viruses effectively—leaving you more vulnerable to illness. This further illustrates the crucial link between adrenal health and the immune system. But there’s more …
As your adrenal fatigue progresses even further, your immune system becomes more ineffective, further exhibiting the link between adrenal health and the immune system. This is why many people with more extreme adrenal fatigue tend to develop hives, even if they’ve never experienced them before. If these hives can’t be connected to anything you’ve used topically or eaten, and if they happen more often at night while you’re resting, odds are high that your immune system is in overdrive. Simply put, your immune system can no longer determine what’s a real threat from what isn’t.
The Top 3 Signs Adrenal Fatigue is Impacting Your Immune System
Here are some of the top signs that adrenal fatigue may be causing issues with your immunity.
- You rarely get sick until you take a break to relax.
- When you do get sick, your symptoms are more severe.
- It you longer to recover than the average person.
As you can see, there is a very important link between adrenal health and the immune system. The good news is that by learning how to improve your body’s stress management through supporting the health of your adrenal glands, you can limit the impact stress has on your immune system. And, in the process, you can help strengthen your immune system and overall health.
To learn more, check out my article on how to support your adrenal health, which includes tips ranging from dietary support to practicing mindfulness and more.
- Because your adrenal glands control your body’s ability manage stress, the link between adrenal health and the immune system is a crucial one.
- When you’re in a state of stress, your immune system loses its ability to fight off bacteria and viruses effectively—leaving you more vulnerable to illness.
- By learning how to improve your body’s stress management through supporting the health of your adrenal glands, you can limit the impact stress has on your immune system.