Unraveling the Complex Relationship Between Occasional Stress and the Immune System

What You’ll Learn: In this blog we will discuss how occasional stress takes a toll on your body and may lead to unhealthy dietary habits. We will discuss the nutrients and lifestyle changes necessary to support immunity and moderate occasional stress.

Have you ever found yourself standing in front of the open refrigerator door at 3:00 AM, ready to snack on something deliciously full of yummy goodness, jam packed with sugar, calories and fats? If this speaks to you, you’re not alone. Many people struggle with occasional stress and with it comes the potential for overeating or over-snacking. This habit can have some not-so-beneficial effects on your overall health and wellness goals. Unhealthy dietary habits and occasional stress may also affect your immunity.1

Stick with me to learn why occasional stress may lead to unhealthy dietary habits which, in turn, may take a toll on your immunity.

Why You Keep Snacking When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

When you feel the onset of occasional stress, you may have noticed that sometimes you tend to get hungrier than usual. This is because when you’re feeling occasionally stressed, the adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol may stimulate your appetite to ramp up, leading to a desire to snack or eat.

Usually, when occasional stress subsides, cortisol levels should naturally go back to normal, but if cortisol levels don’t subside, cortisol may remain elevated and keep stimulating that motivation to eat.1 I am going to focus on the relationship between the food choices made during times of occasional stress and how they affect the immune system, but if you’re looking to maintain healthy cortisol levels during times of occasional stress, our Cortisol Calm is a great option to keep in the back of your mind!

Why Am I Craving Sugary Foods?

You may have also noticed that during these times of occasional stress, you tend to lean more towards those sugary foods such as pastries, cookies and crackers because they “taste good.” Well, it’s more than just the great taste and flavor.

When you eat foods high in sugar and fat, research suggests that the hormones involved in stimulating appetite, cortisol, insulin and even the hormone ghrelin get dampened. This may lead to a temporary relief response to those emotions triggering that occasional stress and appetite.1 Be wary! This is a temporary relief, without healthy nutrition or lifestyle change, those emotions will come back, and you may just find yourself staring into the refrigerator at 3:00 AM again looking for your next snack.

How Sugary Foods Affect Your Immune System

A strong and well-functioning immune system is essential for a healthy lifestyle. After all, it’s the immune system’s responsibility to constantly be alert and monitor for pathogens and oxidative stress in the body.2 Western diets are widely known to be high in sugar, trans and saturated fats and low in the healthy fiber, complex carbohydrates and omega-3 fatty acids.2 Studies have suggested that diets high in added sugar may lead to many health complications such as a higher waist circumference, difficulties with adequate glucose metabolism and cytokine imbalance in the body. This is a form of occasional physical stress on the body.3

Increased refined carbohydrate and fat intake may result in the production of AGEs (Advanced Glycation End Products). AGEs form when a protein or fat combine with sugar in the bloodstream and result in oxidative stress and cytokine imbalance in the body. This is another way unhealthy intake effects your body’s immune system.4

Plus, it’s been found that consuming excess added sugar and refined carbohydrates may lead to several changes in the body such as the potential for gut permeability. Gut permeability occurs when bacteria, toxins and even undigested food particles move out of the gastrointestinal tract and into the blood stream. This may spike your immune system to work harder to clear out that cytokine imbalance.3

Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar

It’s important to know that natural sugar and added sugar are not the same thing and they work differently in the body. When you think of added sugar, I want you to think of the white, coarse, crystal-like sugar you add to your morning cup of coffee, the sugar you add into the baking mix or even the sugar you add to the jar sitting on your kitchen table.

When you think of natural sugar, I want you to think of fruits and vegetables. I want you to think of nectar and honey. You know, the types of sugars bees, birds and other critters are attracted to. Those foods that are naturally sweet enough you don’t feel the need to add sugar to, those are foods that contain natural sugars.

Added sugar is mostly found in processed foods and drinks. It’s often in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, fructose, glucose and even corn or cane sugar. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, Americans 2 years and older are recommended to limit their added sugar intake to less than 10% of total calories per day.5

The American Heart Association has an even firmer recommendation on added sugar. They recommend no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar for women and less than 9 teaspoons of added sugar for men per day. They also recommend no added sugar for children 2 years of age and younger.6 Unfortunately, according to research done by Harvard University, the average American’s added sugar intake is closer towards 17 teaspoons per day!7

We mentioned earlier that added sugars may really take a toll on your immune system and your health goals. While it may quench the craving desire temporarily, it may spike that cytokine imbalance in the body and diminish the body’s natural defenses.

Natural sugars, like those found in fruits and vegetables, may help your body remove excess cytokine imbalance in the body. The reason why natural sugars work differently in the body is because they are consumed from whole foods and not highly processed foods. This means they are consumed with other nutrients like protein and fiber which may help natural sugars be absorbed and utilized slower. This steady absorption of natural sugars helps limit the possibility of spiking blood sugar, insulin response and overall cytokine imbalance in the body.8

Nutrients to Support Your Immune System

Now you know why occasional stress triggers hormones that can make you crave unhealthy foods but to counteract that, let’s also talk about some key nutrients that help protect and support your immune system.


On a personal note, just between us, I’m a big fan of zinc. It may be my favorite supplement. Why? Zinc is a part of over two dozen enzymatic reactions in the body. For example, zinc plays an important role in supporting the body’s defense system, promoting healthy neutrophil, natural killer cells and T-lymphocyte functions.9

Plus, our Zinc 30 is essential for healthy storage and metabolism of carbohydrates.10 Sugar is a type of carbohydrate and Zinc plays a role in supporting its metabolism.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is probably a vitamin that is most popular when it comes to immune support. There’s a good reason for that! Vitamin C is a well known antioxidant and free radical scavenger. It supports the body’s defense system by promoting white blood cell function and activity, interferon levels, antibody responses and secretion of thymic hormones.11 These thymus hormones are hormones that are secreted by the thymus organ and responsible for the synthesis of lymphocytes and T cells.12

Here at Pure Encapsulations®, we know just how important vitamin C is for your immune health. That’s why we offer it in so many different forms. We offer our Ascorbic Acid Capsules which provide 1,000 mg of vitamin C per serving. Not a big fan of capsules? That’s okay! We offer our ascorbic acid in a powdered form too, which provides 1,400 mg per serving.

Not to mention, we even offer Liposomal Vitamin C Liquid which offers antioxidant vitamin C in an enhanced absorption liposomal form to target cellular health and function plus immune defense.  Vitamin C also helps maintain healthy mast cell function and supports lymphocyte formation.13

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is probably best known for its role in supporting eye health. Vitamin A is required for maintenance of the cornea and forming the visual pigment rhodopsin.14 But, vitamin A plays an important role in lymphocyte and natural killer cell development and function.15, 16

Our new EmulsiSorb A liquid provides 900 mcg of the fat-soluble vitamin A per serving. Our EmulsiSorb A liquid offers micellized vitamin A to help enhance the bioavailability and absorption of vitamin A which requires fat to be utilized in the body. This EmulsiSorb technology helps enhance the bioavailability of vitamin A so vitamin A can help provide cytokine balance in the body and help develop the immune system and ultimately help regulate cellular immune response.17

The unique thing about this formula is that it contains micelles. Micelles are lipid molecules that arrange themselves around molecules that don’t often dissolve well in water, so that the compound they’re surrounding becomes better dissolved.

 If you’re having a hard time visually conceptualizing micelles, think of soap. The next time you do the dishes, think of how much easier it is to remove food debris from your plate with soap versus without soap. That right there is the function of micelles.

Innate vs. Adaptive Immune System

Before I introduce you to some herbs that help promote the immune system, I want to first explain that there are two different types of immune responses and collectively, we refer to this as the immune system.

You have two types of immune responses: innate and adaptive immune response. The innate immune response protects against foreign bodies, oxidative stress, injuries and pathogens like bacteria. Think of this immune response as your first line of defense. This type of immune response works and responds very quickly.18

The adaptive immune response is the next in line for defense. This type of immune response occurs when the innate immune response is not able to take care of all the initial germs or stressors. The adaptive immune response is slower to arrive on scene, but when it does, it shows up in full force. That’s because the adaptive immune response first identifies the pathogen and determines a personalized approach at taking down pathogens. That’s why the adaptive immune response is known to have “memory.” That way, the next time your body encounters this pathogen again, it’ll be faster to respond.18

Herbs to Support the Immune System

Herbs have long been touted for their role in supporting the immune system with their unique role of providing potent antioxidant defenses. That’s why our Innate Immune Support is an herb-based formula with functional mushrooms to help support that Innate immune response we discussed a little earlier.

The ingredients in this formulation were specifically designed to help promote the cell-mediated immune response, which includes natural killer cells and macrophage activity. The formula also includes clinically researched andrographis extract which has been found to help promote immune function and supported respiratory comfort.19 Reishi mushroom offers a rich source of polysaccharides to promote cell-mediated immunity.

Natural Methods to Help Cope with Occasional Stress and Unhealthy Diet Habits

Occasional stress may result in you craving more unhealthy food high in fats and sugars. This can lead to oxidative stress in the body, causing to kick your immune system into action.  These processed foods tend to not be good sources of healthy nutrients. That’s why we discussed the nutrients helpful to support your immune system. But, there are natural methods you can use to help support your immune system and help moderate occasional stress.

Meditation has been found to help individuals manage occasional stress and become more mindful with their food choices. Practicing meditation may also help individuals to pay more attention to impulsively grabbing fat and sugary foods and may help bring awareness to their eating habits so they may curb the behavior the next time around.1

Exercise is another great option to consider to naturally help manage occasional stress. The hormone cortisol may vary depending on the intensity and time spent exercising. Overall, exercise has been shown to help minimize some of the overwhelming feelings associated with occasional stress.1

Having a healthy social support system has also been found to help individuals manage occasional stress. Talking with your peers and your friends and family has been found to help lessen the effects of occasional stress.1

Supporting Healthy Immune Habits For a Healthy Lifestyle

Everything is connected. Mindfulness, healthy nutrition and exercise may really help you align your actions to your overall health goals. From the foods we eat to the emotions we feel, so much effects our overall immunity. Choosing healthy foods with a combination of moderate exercise, does a wonder of benefits on the body.

If that occasional stress is getting the best of you, and you find yourself choosing the foods you usually tend to avoid, don’t fret. Check out our Immune Support options to help support your antioxidant defenses and promote healthy immune response.

  1. Harvard Health Publishing. (2021, February 15). . Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat
  2. Childs, C. et al. (2019). Diet and Immune Function. Nutrients11(8), 1933. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11081933
  3. Frazier, T. H. et al. (2011). Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition35(5_suppl), 14S20S. https://doi.org/10.1177/0148607111413772
  4. Schmidt, A. M. et al. (1994). Arteriosclerosis and Thrombosis: A Journal of Vascular Biology14(10), 1521–1528. https://doi.org/10.1161/01.atv.14.10.1521
  5. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 -2025. (n.d.). https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/DGA_2020-2025_ExecutiveSummary_English.pdf
  6. American Heart Association. (2021, November 2). Added Sugars. Www.heart.org. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/added-sugars
  7. Harvard Health. Added sugar: Where is it hiding?(2019, November 9). https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/added-sugar-where-is-it-hiding
  8. Malik, V. (2019, May 29). Are certain types of sugars healthier than others? - Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/are-certain-types-of-sugars-healthier-than-others-2019052916699
  9. Meksawan K, et al. Anticancer Res. 2014 Jan;34(1):295-9.
  10. Huskisson E, et al. J Int Med Res. 2007 MayJun;35(3):277-89.)
  11. Uchio R, et al. Br J Nutr. 2015 Feb 28;113(4):603-9
  12. Cleveland Clinic. (2022). Thymus: The Function of the Gland & Why it is Important. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/23016-thymus
  13. Romero SA, et al. Exp Physiol. 2015 Apr 1;100(4):435-49.
  14. Owsley C, et al. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2006 Apr;47(4):1310-8
  15. Ahmad SM, et al. J Nutr. 2009 Feb;139(2):377- 85.
  16. Ahmad SM, et al. J Nutr. 2008 Nov;138(11):2276-83.
  17. Huang, Z., Liu, Y., Qi, G., Brand, D., & Zheng, S. (2018). Role of Vitamin A in the Immune System. Journal of Clinical Medicine7(9), 258. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm7090258
  18. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. (2020). The innate and adaptive immune systems. Nih.gov; Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279396/
  19. Saxena RC, et al. Phytomedicine. 2010 Mar;17(3-4):178-85