It’s safe to say that the coronavirus pandemic has us all on edge, as demonstrated by reports of increased depression and anxiety. The added stress comes in many forms: social isolation, economic hardship, or chronic illness that heightens the risk of serious COVID-19 infection. Fears of a second wave of economic troubles can still linger over regions in the recovery stage.
However, the mind-body connection and its effects on our health don’t stop for a pandemic. New research suggests that elevated cortisol, a key stress hormone, may increase the risk of COVID-19 mortality. It impairs the immune response, which prolongs or worsens infections, and can slow tissue regeneration by reducing levels of growth-promoting hormones.
How Stress Hormones Affect COVID-19 Recovery
In a new study, researchers compared cortisol levels to survival time and mortality in 535 patients, 403 of whom had confirmed or suspected COVID-19.
According to the findings, people diagnosed with COVID-19 infections had higher average cortisol levels, at 619nmol/L versus 519nmol/L. Those with cortisol levels over 744nmol/L had an average survival time of 15 days, compared to 36 days for patients with levels under this cut-off point.
Additionally, a doubling of cortisol levels was linked to a 42 percent higher risk of dying. The authors wrote that their results most likely reflected a more severe response to the stress of infection. Serious illness and surgery both lead to spikes in cortisol as part of the stress response against them. Potentially harmful drugs and invasive procedures given to these patients may be partly responsible for their findings, so there are many factors to be considered when interpreting this study. For example, ventilation and sedation are linked with adrenal insufficiency, where prolonged over-production of stress hormones wears out the adrenal glands.
How Stress Hormones Affect Immunity
During the stress response, corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) triggers adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), which in turn promotes the production of cortisol and other stress hormones. This increases alertness and focus and has physical effects such as faster heart rate and increased energy production.
However, it also suppresses tissue regeneration, digestion, and immunity. Stress hormones inhibit the cellular immune response, which lowers our defense against infections. While this is meant to protect us against runaway inflammation, it can prevent timely immune response to viral infections. Also of importance, increased inflammation can raise stress hormone production.
Prolonged activation of the cortisol-promoting pathways also leads to reduced growth hormone production. The growth hormone has immune system-regenerating effects, so suppression through stress could lead to faster age-related degeneration.
Insulin resistance, increased body fat, and production of pro-inflammatory immune signals are other metabolic consequences of chronically elevated cortisol. These include IL-6, TNF-alpha, and pro-clotting signaling chemicals. As other research has shown, excessive blood clotting is behind many COVID-19 deaths. It is important to avoid adding more stressors to an already hyper-coagulative, highly inflammatory state.
The Mind-Body Connection And Stress Hormones
Psychological stress increases levels of cortisol too, possibly as an evolutionary adaptation in order to conserve energy. Research has found that chronic stress from situations such as abuse, social isolation, and caring responsibilities can lead to persistent, severe immune dysregulation. This can lead to lower immune cell counts, slower wound healing, and dampen antibody and cellular immune responses to pathogen exposure.
To make things worse, there is also a chronic stress link to autoimmune diseases and mental illness such as schizophrenia. People with autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, are prone to increased inflammation when stress hormones rise, worsening their symptoms, and creating a vicious cycle.
Media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic is currently constant and fear-driven, likely increasing the collective stress response. Unaccounted factors may play a more important role than we know within the current reporting measures. These include tests for active infection being lumped together with those that detect recovered cases. Some COVID-19 cases may even be counted twice. Death counts include patients who test positive for the virus regardless of cause. The CDC has also admitted that the commonly-used RT PCR tests can give false positives. False-positive rates of up to 80 percent have been recorded, according to Chinese research.
It is possible that the risk of false positives may be inflating COVID-19 case statistics at the time of writing. The media’s coronavirus coverage overshadows other serious issues that can mimic COVID-19 symptoms. Reactions to the larger-than-normal Sahara dust plume, such as breathing difficulties and a dry cough, can mimic coronavirus infections. This dust plume is sweeping through states including Texas and Florida as of late June, which are experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Taking Advantage Of The Connection To Fight Stress
Nutrition, supplements, and lifestyle interventions can help reduce levels of stress hormones and their harmful effects. For example, adaptogens such as ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) can improve energy levels while reducing stress hormones.
One clinical trial testing ashwagandha extract against a placebo on 60 people found significant improvements in perceived stress, general health, mental health, and cortisol levels. The adaptogens, including reishi, Korean ginseng, Rhodiola, bacopa, and cordyceps, have other benefits too. Improved physical performance and increased cellular energy production make the list of positive effects adaptogens have on the body.
CBD extracts are celebrated for alleviating symptoms linked with stress and anxiety. The founder of HoneyColony, Maryam Henein, kicked Xanax out of her life with the help of CBD. As for research, a case series found that adding CBD to usual treatment significantly improved anxiety in almost 80 percent of the 72 participants, and improved sleep measurements in 48 participants. Earlier research has shown that CBD interferes with the excretion of cortisol, which may partly explain these effects.
Research demonstrates that simply drinking green tea could help take the edge off of elevated stress hormones. A polyphenol, known as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), significantly inhibits cortisol production. It works by blocking the enzyme that turns inactive cortisone to active cortisol. Interestingly, matcha is much higher in EGCG than regular green tea.
Music And Art
Listening to music or engaging in a creative hobby makes use of the mind-body connection in a positive context. In a small study of people undergoing a colonoscopy, listening to music significantly blunted the understandable rise in cortisol.
Music and art therapy have also reduced cortisol measurements in people under chronic stresses. Spotify and YouTube both allow free access to music and playlist creation. You can also make use of the internet or library for art tutorials and inspiration. Community centers with art classes may also reopen in your area too.
Sticking to doing things that relax you during the evening may improve sleep too, which is essential for keeping stress hormones in check. For example, a study involving medical flight emergency workers found that the work itself didn’t significantly increase stress hormones, but poor sleep did.
A reduction in sleep from 7.8 to six hours per night was linked to a 50 to 80 percent rise in cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. This persisted for two days after active duty. If watching the news at night keeps you awake, don’t let others make you feel bad for “sticking your head in the sand” if turning the TV off helps.
The mind-body connection, driven in part by our stress hormones, is a powerful thing. Fortunately, there are many ways we can influence it that suit all budgets and preferences.
Alexandra Preston is an Australian naturopath, passionate about empowering others to take charge of their health and healing the planet. Her special area of interest in natural health is antiaging; she also loves the beach and is a semi-professional dancer.
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