The Effects of Stress on White Blood Cells

Stress can be a positive or negative event. Getting married or buying a new home can be just as stressful as financial or health problems. Stress becomes a problem when it occurs on a regular basis with no break and creates feelings of being out of control or overwhelmed. Even a low level of stress can have negative effects if it becomes chronic. Stress can alter many systems of the body, including the immune system. To help prevent complications it is important to understand the role stress plays on the activity of the white blood cells.

Increased Number

There are several types of white blood cells or leukocytes, all of which help the body to fight off infections. The National Institutes of Health states that both medications and stress can cause the number of white blood cells to rise. This occurs because the immune system is designed to kick into action to manage or prevent disease. When feeling stressed, the brain receives signals that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. The body may respond in part by increasing the activity of the immune system. This general reaction appears to occur during times of acute or short-term stress.


The brain and the body are in constant communication with one another. During times when stress is acute or short term, the brain can first respond to help the body deal with the situation. When the stressful event has ended the brain then sends signals to reverse the initial stress reaction, allowing the white blood cell count to return to normal. However in situations where stress is chronic, the brain may continue to send signals to respond. This means that the white blood cell count can remain elevated for long periods. Over time this may contribute to the development of an autoimmune disease, warns the National Institutes of Health. Since stressful situations are not always avoidable, the goal is to find healthy ways to manage your reactions to them.

Decreased Activity

There is no way to predict how an individual's immune system will respond to stress. For some the immune system is suppressed. The body releases several chemicals during times of stress and this includes catecholamines. According to an article by Hannah Koenker of the University of Illinois, catecholamines can suppress the activity of certain white blood cells, leaving the immune system weakened. This change appeared to be most drastic in individuals who had strong reactions to stress such as an elevation in heart rate and blood pressure. Individuals who did not have significant changes in heart rate and blood pressure also did not appear to have changes in white blood cell activity. In other words the choices made about how to respond to the stress may play a role in how the immune system responds. Learning to stay calm may help to prevent negative effects of stress.

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