Solders paying respect to an ill comrade

Protecting the Immune System from the Ravages of Stress

You can decrease the likelihood of getting sick by protecting the immune system. In an era where there are rampaging bacteria with no antibiotics and viruses without vaccines, it’s a reasonable insurance policy to deploy. For the mind and stressors play a massive role in whether one gets sick. But it also influences how healing occurs (or doesn’t occur).

By Murray Johannsen, Questions? Contact by email or connect on Linkedin Profile,

Learn To Dial Down Your Stress With Meditation

Meditation has many benefits besides the ability to relax.  But, just this one thing makes it worth while learning.

Meditation produces positive changes in both the mind the body. You can drill down and find a detailed list here. 

Learn the Practice of Meditation

Meditation is a natural, latent relaxation response built into the mind-body. It works — as tens millions who have used it over thousands of years can attest. 

It is best done with a process know as an induction. Here are four different types of inductions.

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What Is the Immune System Exactly

The immune system is very complex. It consists of many different cells that destroy invaders and the ability to detect organisms.

Image by: Jeanne Kelly. Notice the large number of different cells participating in the system.

And while it’s helpful to know what each of the different parts of this system does, what is more, important is knowing how to keep it running in tip-top shape. And that means controlling your stress.

A scanning electron microscopy of a human B lymphocyte. We can see the mitochondria, a very large nucleus, and cytoplasmic extensions (kinds of tentacles) used by the lymphocytes to move. Image by NIAID

How Does It Work?

Visualize it this way. Do you remember the movie “The Return of the King”? Do you remember the way the city was designed?

It was constructed in such a way that there were layers of defense — a series of walls that had to be breached,

Sweden Image by Rhinheld and Neil Crawford. Model of the capital of Gondor — Minas Tirith

It is a system that acts to defend against foreign invaders. You might say stress causes a general weakening of the walls, and the defenders behind those walls become less vigilant in the defense.

In the movie, the walls were breached, just as the immune system can be compromised.

Scanning electron micrograph of an HIV-infected T cell. Credit: NIAID In this picture, the virus attacks a vital cell of the immune response directly.
A Personal Story. Aurelia Marvin of Jasper, Ga., writes: I have an M.S. and a highly compromised immune system. My husband is elderly as well. We’re not leaving the house unless it’s necessary. But we are afraid to go to medical facilities for fear of catching something there! We are terrified and frankly are worried for anyone in the area that is elderly and forced to stay in their homes during this crisis. Source: A dangerous side effect for older people: loneliness — N.Y. Times: Corona Briefing Newsletter: 18 March 2020

For Further Reading

Science Daily, Immune System News. This is a good resource for those who want to search for what the research is saying but do not wade into the academic journals. Includes articles on immune suppression, the new coronavirus, and so on. 

Stress Suppresses The Functioning of The Immune System

Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky (1837–1898): Fire in the Village. While some stressors are predictable, many still find themselves unprepared to deal with them when it occurs.

A Bit of History

There is not much controversy about the observation that too much stress is associated with physical illness. The following story illustrates this:

The idea that psychological stress can make us — or at least rats — more vulnerable to illness was inadvertently proven by an eager yet clumsy physiologist back in the 1930s. Hans Selye, an Austrian-born endocrinologist working in Canada, was trying to prove that he’d discovered a new hormone by injecting lab rats daily with an ovarian extract. As the story goes, Selye was an inexperienced technician and often dropped the rats and had to chase them around the floor with a broom to catch and successfully inject them. A few months later, when the rats developed peptic ulcers and swollen adrenal glands, Selye was convinced he’d discovered a new hormone. To be sure, he ran a control group on more rats, injecting them with plain saline solution. The results? The control rats developed the same symptoms. The young scientist was forced to conclude that the stress of his sloppy lab-side manner caused the rats’ maladies. Selye had failed to discover a new hormone but succeeded in proving a relationship between stress and physical disease. He went on to write more than 1,700 papers and 33 books on the subject of stress. Today, the late Hans Selye is “the father of the stress field.” Source: Bierma, Page (2019). The Immune System and Stress. HealthDay.

The Research

And there isn’t much controversy on this point — stress suppresses the optimal function of the immune system.

McLeod, Saul (2010). Stress, Illness, and the Immune System. Simple Psychology. A good article here that not only talks about stress but also provides an easy-to-understand overview of the immune system.

American Psychological Association (2004). Stress Weakens the Immune System. Excellent review article that goes back into the history of the research and some of the key finds demonstrating that the mind impacts the body’s functioning.

So to protect the immune system, you have to control your stress. It’s as simple —and as complex — as that.

Meditation Reduces the Impact of Stress

So what does the research say about meditation’s impact on the immune system?

Meditation is a process built into the human body that can be learned by both young and old.

According to a review study published by the U.S. National Institute of Health called, “Meditation: Process and Effects,” research indicates that meditation will:

  • Reduce stress, [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
  • Decrease anxiety [1, 3, 5, 7, 8]
  • Decrease depression [1, 3, 4, 9, 10]
  • Reduce the perception of pain (both physical and psychological) [2, 11, 12]
  • Reduce blood pressure [2, 13, 14]

Besides those benefits, there are more subtle ones, such as its ability to protect the immune system (see below).

A Novice in meditation in the Forest. Some of the studies have less than favorable results. This could be due to many factors. But here is the most obvious one — the novice effect. Someone who meditates for years will experience more benefits than someone who starts a few weeks before the study begins.

Many “experts,” tell you to put your attention on your breath. But entering meditation only using breath is unlikely, primarily magical thinking. One needs to embed breathing into other induction techniques such as:

  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Yoga, tai chi, and Qi Gong
  • Repetitive prayer
  • Guided imagery

Take The Bite Out of Stress

Strive to master a skill in 30-days.

Legacee’s founder, Murray Johannsen coaches on meditation. He speaks from experience — having started meditating at 22. And he’s well aware of the unique stressors faced by executives and entrepreneurs and how to deal with them. 

Research How the Immune System Functions With Meditation

Vago, David (n.d). Why Mindfulness Can Help the Immune System. Brigham and Woman’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. The article goes into more detail on how meditation might reduce the stress pathways from operating.

Black, David & Slavich, George (2016). Mindfulness Meditation and the Immune System: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials, Annals NY Academy of Science, June: 1373(1): 13-24. Jere 20 studies were chosen to test whether there were noticeable differences. They are mostly related to (1) circulating and stimulated inflammatory proteins, (2) cellular transcription factors and gene expression, (3) immune cell count, (4) immune cell aging, and (5) antibody response.

Harvard Medical School (2016). How to Boost Your Immune System, The article gives you eight ways to fight off illness, only one of which is related to stress.

Harvard Medical School (2018). Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress responses. Actually, breath is not just breathing; it is part of an induction technique you use to enter a state of meditation.

Nani Morgan, Michael R. Irwin, Mei Chung, Chenchen Wang

Morgan, Nani; Irwin, Michael; Chung, Mei; and Wang, Chenchen (2014). The Effects of Mind-Body Therapies on the Immune System: Meta-Analysis, PLOA One. An excellent review of over 104 studies looked at certain aspects of the immune response, such as inflammation and other antiviral biomarkers.

Ritchel, Matt (n.d). How to Get the Best From Your Immune System. N.Y. Times. Written for easy understanding, it would suit children and those not in love with scholarly English. This is the first article of a series that you can access. including one called “How Can We Unleash the Immune System.”

Staff, (2019) 3 Surprising Immune System Boosters: Meditation, Mindfulness, and Yoga. University Health News. The article points out that since stress causes immune suppression, other techniques can reduce it. It looks at the secretory immunoglobulin A (sIgA) as a measure since it activates immune response mechanisms.

Thibodeax, Michele & Rossano, Matt (2018). Meditation and Immune Function: The Impact of Stress Management on the Immune System, OBM Integrative and Complementary Medicine, volume 3, issue 4. A great resource here. It’s only 16 pages but has over 100 references which provide valuable insight into how the immune system functions.

Articles Cited

If you want to dig deep into the research JSTOR is now open to the public

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Last Updated 21 May 2022,

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