Do mental health and stress affect the immune system?

A meeting here, an appointment there, plus a quick dash around the supermarket before picking the kids up from nursery: it all adds up to stress on a massive scale, and often on a daily basis. Can a stressful daily life have an impact on one's mental health and also affect the immune system? The answer is a resounding 'Yes'. Find out how and why here. You will also learn how you can strengthen your immune system. Enter our competition as well, and with a bit of luck you could win one of the attractive prizes designed to give your health a boost.
There is a lot of talk about the immune system. Some people have a good one, while other people's are weakened. You can support your immune system by consuming vitamins and getting enough sleep, while exercise or winter swimming can help strengthen it. The numerous germs, viruses and fungi it encounters also keep the immune system constantly on its toes and ensure it never has time to get bored. As a result, it learns to attack and eliminate harmful invaders as quickly as possible.


What else does the immune system do?

First and foremost, that is by no means a simple question – the immune system is a complex system of the human body. Its role is to look out for you like a kind of personal bodyguard. Various factors and aspects such as mental health can impact the effectiveness of the immune system. One key factor is stress: mental stress can have an impact first on one's mental health and – over the long term – on the immune system.


Mental stress encourages inflammation

Psychoneuroimmunology researches the impact of one's mental state on the immune system. It investigates the interactions between the nervous, endocrine and immune systems. Mental stress can affect the release of immunoregulatory substances via these complex relationships and increase inflammation in the body. Stress also reduces the quantity of supportive neurotransmitters like vitamins and antioxidants, which perform a protective function.

This means that a healthy lifestyle can actually be crucial in determining whether we get through the winter without succumbing to a bad case of flu or a severe cold.


Chronic stress affects the immune system

Chronic stress can severely affect the immune system. For one thing, persistent stress causes the immune cells that kill germs to lose their ability to multiply. The increased concentration of the stress hormone cortisol can also affect the activity of immune cells and accelerate the processes that encourage inflammation. This can make it harder for the immune system to fight infection. The volume of antibodies in our saliva is also reduced.

Good to know: The WHO (World Health Organization) considers stress to be one of the biggest health risks of the 21st century.


Not all stress is equal

These effects may vary from person to person, as not everyone experiences stress in the same way. Moreover, not everyone who experiences stress or suffers from mental health problems will necessarily develop an impaired immune function. Genetic factors, individual susceptibility and the type of stress management methods used also play a key role.


Positive emotions strengthen the immune system

Conversely, positive emotions such as joy, gratitude and calmness and a general feeling of wellbeing can strengthen the immune system: happy and contented people tend to have a better immune function.

Stress test: How stressed are you?

Do you remain calm in every situation? Or is there so much on your plate right now that you feel overwhelmed? Answer the seven questions below to get a better sense of your current stress level.

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Eight tips for strengthening the immune system

These eight tips give you some easy ways to strengthen your immune system every day and for the long term:


1. Eat happy and healthy

  •  Eat a balanced diet. It is advisable to include lots of fruit and vegetables, whole grain products and lean protein foods such as chicken or lentils, along with healthy fats such as olive oil.
  • Ensure you consume sufficient vitamins and minerals.
  • Foods with a high tryptophan content and low levels of other amino acids make you happy. Tried-and-tested examples include the classic combination of warm milk and honey in the evening, pasta with parmesan cheese, ripe bananas, dark chocolate and dried figs.


2. Take regular exercise

  • Sport and physical activity can also strengthen the immune system. There's no need to do intensive workouts, though. All it takes is regular, moderate exercise. Our tip: incorporate movement into your daily routine. Take the stairs rather than the lift, for example, or get up and walk around during long phone calls. Avoid sitting rigidly at your desk, and opt to walk or cycle when travelling short distances.


3. Find ways of coping with stress

  • Stress can weaken the immune system. It is therefore crucial to find ways of managing stress so it doesn't become a chronic problem. Yoga, meditation, relaxation techniques and hobbies like singing or dancing are very helpful.


4. Treat yourself to a digital detox

  • For many people, their mobile phone is the first thing they look at in the morning and the last thing they look at before bed. Over time, being permanently contactable can become a strain. Give yourself a break from your mobile, and try to change your habits.


5. Get enough sleep

  • Sleep is important for regenerating the body and strengthening the immune system. Try to get enough sleep to meet your needs. Adults should have at least six hours sleep.


6. Avoid nicotine and only drink alcohol in moderation

  • Smoking can damage the immune system. Try to avoid nicotine altogether.
  • Regular alcohol consumption can also damage your immune system, so stick to the recommended limits.


7. Look after your gut

  • The gut is our largest internal organ, and it is responsible for much more than just digestion. It is essential for our immune system and important for our mental health. The gut does an incredible amount of work throughout our entire lives, for which it deserves recognition and care. These nutritional tips will help ensure a healthy gut.


8. Drink enough

"Most people know their digestion and their own personal digestive habits. The gut likes to have rituals, but they don't have to be the same for everyone. If you notice changes, there's often something out of kilter." Silke Schmitt Oggier, Medical Director of santé24 telemedicine service

Mental state and the immune system

Stress – including in the form of trauma, depression or anxiety – affects one's mental state and ultimately the immune system.

Trauma: Traumatic events can affect the immune system and make you more susceptible to illness.

Depression and anxiety: Depression and anxiety disorders are associated with increased susceptibility to infection. Shorter days and cold, wet weather can exacerbate health problems such as depressive moods. This is often referred to as winter depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). In this video (not available in English), Birgit Schmid, a psychologist at santé24, explains how to recognise SAD.


A person's mental state has a major effect on the immune system. This effect can be positive or negative. Everyone's individual differences play a huge role here. There is no one-size-fits-all formula that guarantees one's mental state will have a positive effect on the immune system. It is clear, however, that a good mental health and stress management are key factors in maintaining a strong immune system.

How SWICA supports your relaxation

Getting enough relaxation in your daily life has a sustainable effect on your health. That's why SWICA supports its customers who have supplementary cover with up to 1'300 francs* per year (*find out more) and with a variety in the field of health promotion such as traditional massage, autogenic training, yoga, breathing gymnastics, and for exercise options such as fitness classes, Pilates, tennis and much more. By the way, supplementary insurance is a valuable add-on to your basic insurance in every case, and you can purchase a plan from SWICA at any time, regardless of which insurer currently provides your basic insurance.

Go to the supplementary insurance plans

Psychological/psychiatric counselling service

Are you plagued by worries and fears or are you aware of other psychological symptoms? A challenging everyday situation or other uncertainties can cause stress. As part of the santé24 telemedicine service, SWICA offers its customers psychiatric/psychological counselling from specialists. Contact us to arrange an appointment.

SWICA customers benefit from additional medical services with santé24. Doctors and specialists are available around the clock, free of charge, 365 days a year. Find out more:

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