Grief and the Immune System: Strengthening Your Body's Defenses When You Need Them Most
Grief can be an incredibly difficult emotion to navigate. It can be caused by the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or any other major life event that results in a significant change or sense of loss. It is a complex and multi-layered experience that can manifest in many ways, such as sadness, anger, guilt, loneliness, and despair. It's psychological, but it affects people physically. It's a matter of science, but scientists who discuss it can sound poetic. Dr. Katherine Shear, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University School of Social Work in New York, calls grief "the form that love takes when someone we love dies." Grief can be overwhelming and unpredictable, and it can take a toll on our well-being if left unaddressed.
Physiological Response to Grief
Despite having many common features, the experience of grief is unique to each person. Yet, its symptoms are not just emotional and mental, they can also include physical effects on your body. Researchers have made clear connections between grief and certain bodily changes, including effects on heart health, digestive issues (such as appetite loss, overeating, nausea), stomach pain, sleep patterns, moods, and overall immune system. One can also experience reduced energy levels from nutrient and vitamin deficiencies. Depression and anxiety, which often accompany grief, can also cause disordered eating and gastrointestinal distress in some people. There’s a growing body of research on the brain-gut pathway and the way psychological factors may impact our gut. According to a 2019 review, grieving people have lower levels of certain immune system cells, including natural killer cells and lymphocytes. They also have higher levels of inflammatory markers (including IL-6 and IL-1), which can further worsen the likelihood of illness or infection.
Grief can take a toll on your body and weaken your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to illnesses. To stay healthy during this difficult time, it's important to take extra care of your physical and emotional well-being. Below, are 10 tips to keep your immune system strong while grieving.
10 tips to improve your immune system while you are grieving:
Eat a balanced diet: Eating a healthy, balanced diet is important for overall health, including the immune system. Make sure to include a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and high quality protein sources in your diet.
Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water can help keep your immune system functioning properly. Aim for at least half your body weight in ounces of water a day (e.g., a 160 pound person should consume 80 ounces of water per day).
Get enough sleep: Adequate sleep is important for immune function, and grief can often disrupt sleep patterns. Try to establish a consistent sleep routine to help regulate your sleep patterns.
Manage stress: Stress can negatively impact the immune system, so finding healthy ways to manage stress is crucial. Consider meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises.
Exercise regularly: Exercise can help boost immune function and improve mood. Try to incorporate physical activity into your daily routine, even if it's just a short walk.
Connect with others: Social support can help reduce stress and improve immune function. Reach out to family and friends for support during this difficult time.
Limit alcohol and tobacco use: Alcohol and tobacco use can weaken the immune system, so it's important to limit or avoid these substances altogether.
Take breaks: It's important to take breaks from grieving to focus on self-care. Whether it's watching a movie, reading a book, or taking a relaxing bath, make time for yourself to recharge.
Release emotions: Tears are good to release. Consider journaling also to release any emotions or feelings that come up.
Consider supplements: Certain supplements, such as vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc, may help support immune function. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether supplements may be right for you.
The grief experience
The grief experience can change shape and evolve unpredictably. You may have days when you feel stable and optimistic, and other days when the grief feels overwhelming. However, grief is not something to be feared or avoided. It is a necessary part of the healing process, and it can lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. By allowing ourselves to grieve, we can honor the memory of what we have lost and learn to let go of what we cannot change. We can also seek support from others, whether it is through therapy, support groups, or simply talking to friends and family. In addition to maintaining treatment for any underlying mental or physical health conditions, practicing proper self-care can help you cope with loss.
“Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.” Leo Tolstoy
For many people, grief is a lifelong process that has unpredictable ups and downs. However, it’s entirely possible to achieve acceptance and move forward, even as you continue to hold space for your grief.
Remember, grieving takes time. Give yourself grace when grieving and be patient and kind to yourself as you navigate the grieving process. Seek emotional support, whether it’s family and friends, attending a support group, or talking with a therapist. Prioritize eating a balanced diet and getting some form of physical activity. Experts even recommend setting aside a specific time each day to reflect and grieve. Doing so may give you a feeling of control when grief can otherwise make you feel out of control. Taking care of your immune system while grieving is crucial for your physical and emotional well-being. By following these tips, you can help keep your immune system strong and stay healthy during this difficult time.
Andrea is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) and founder of Rising Roots Nutrition. She lives in Orange County, California with her husband, two kids and Goldendoodle. In addition to her NTP certification from the Nutritional Therapy Association (NTA), she also holds a B.S. in Marketing and an M.A. in Counseling from San Diego State University. She is passionate about helping people get to the root cause of their symptoms, so that they can reclaim their health and find joy again.