Immunity is complex— a dance between us and the world, a weaving of boundaries, efficiencies, and reserves. In its essence, human immunity is an expression of homeostasis, or how we maintain balance in an environment of challenges. Building deep immunity is about more than just quick-fix panaceas and fear-induced sterility. It entails a much more rounded approach of resourcing our bodies from multiple angles. Nutrition, sleep, exercise, emotional well-being, spiritual vitality— these are all important. And plants can help too, especially the stress-busting adaptogens.
Stress and Immunity
What is the connection between cortisol— the main stress hormone— and our immune response? In acute illness, cortisol’s role as an anti-inflammatory can be beneficial. Inflammation is a vital part of our innate immune response but can get out of control if sustained for too long or too intensely. Cortisol can also act as a short-term immunostimulant, activating our system and readying our resources.
Unfortunately, the modern phenomenon of chronic stress can instead promote a pro-inflammatory environment. In addition, increased levels of cortisol can decrease lymphocytes—one of the main immune cells—and deplete our metabolic reserves.
In any natural ecosystem, it’s hard to paint in black or white. This is the case with cortisol and our body. It is neither a complete villain or a harmless helper. Instead, it is all about balance.
Chronic Stress Depletes Us
Our stress response is well designed, there’s no doubt about that. But it evolved to handle immediate, short-term stressors, not the ever-present stressors we often encounter in the modern age. One of the issues with chronic stress is that the physiological resources we use to manage a stressful event are the same that we used to maintain our normal health. If ambulances and police cruisers are constantly lit up and driving down the highway, the rest of the ‘normal’ cars are sidelined and the people in those cars never get to work. If this goes on for too long, city infrastructure starts to collapse.
Robert Sapolsky, in his popular book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, explains it similarly: “The army does not run out of bullets, instead, the body spends so much on the defense budget that it neglects education, and health care, and social services. It’s not so much that the stress response runs out, but rather that the stress response can become more damaging than the stressor itself.”
When we’re constantly running on adrenaline and cortisol, our immune system stops getting the resources it needs and we become more susceptible to invasion. This is why, for example, viruses that normally lie dormant—like the common cold sore—often re-emerge when we’re stressed.
Natural Ingenuity of Adaptogens
In times like these, plants can be of tremendous value. The way our body responds to infection by pathogens originated in early single-celled organisms, and while we’ve evolved into extremely complex beings with sprawling cities and big ideas, many of the pathways through which our innate immunity flows are conserved across much of life. Both plants and animals share these pathways.
This helps explain the herbalist’s approach to immunity. Unlike modern drugs, which act on us, plants interact with us in an ongoing conversation that is our heath. These plants have lived with viruses and bacteria for way longer than we have, and are masters of chemistry. When we open this dialogue between our cells and the phytochemicals from herbs, our physiology is engaged, informed, and most importantly, strengthened.
Adaptogens are a special class of herbs that help modulate our overall stress response, steady our cortisol, and make us more resilient and adaptable. By keeping our stress in the optimal range, adaptogens have a balancing effect across our entire physiology, from mood to immunity.
Not only do adaptogens excel at balancing stress, many of them also directly influence our immune response, helping bring overactive and underactive immunity alike back into the optimal range.
I keep coming back to balance, again and again. Perhaps this is the greatest medicine the natural world offers us in this time of crisis. When we find ourselves swinging daily between the extremes of fear and skepticism, anxiety and avoidance, productivity and rest, control and surrender, we would do well to let the plants help us move towards balance, both internally and externally. By consuming herbal medicines, getting out in nature where and when we can, or even just staring at the clouds or sitting with a tree for 10 minutes, we bring a little much-needed balance into our beings.
Over 2000 years ago, the Yellow Emperor had a hold of this thread as well:
“Maintaining order rather than correcting disorder is the ultimate principal of wisdom. To cure disease after it has appeared is like digging a well when one feels thirsty or forging weapons after the war has already begun.” - The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, ~ 4th Century BC
Speaking of curing diseases, this is a good time to state that this is an educational post, not intended for the purpose of providing medical advice. All information, content, and material found in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to serve as a substitute for the consultation, diagnosis, and/or medical treatment of a qualified physician or healthcare provider.
To health, to balance, to caring for each other however we can.
Feeling studious? Read up on Adaptogens & Immunity Part I.