Everyone has heard that immune systems weaken when they are sheltered, but is that really the case? As we are now over one year into lockdowns and social distancing, many are becoming concerned that after the pandemic immune systems are going to falter after being isolated for such a long period, and many adults are concerned to resume a “normal” life due to this.
The idea that people who are exposed to more viruses, bacteria, and parasites as young children will lead to them being able to gain a stronger immune system in the future is called the hygiene hypothesis.1 While there is scientific evidence proving that younger children who are exposed to these types of bacteria and viruses are less likely to develop allergies or autoimmune disorders, this concept does not necessarily apply to adults the same way. By the time we are adults, we have already spent many years being exposed to many different types of bacteria and viruses and our body has created a robust immune system to respond to these intruders accordingly.2
Now, this is not to say that our immune systems may not be weakened after the pandemic, but the culprit will not be due to the lack of exposure. So, what is the villain that can make us more susceptible to viruses and bacteria we have always fought off? Stress. This pandemic has created stress for many different reasons, but stress can be a huge hindrance to our immune system’s ability to fight off foreign intruders in our body.
Stress leads to a decrease in the white blood cells that help to fight off infection as well as producing higher levels of cortisol which can lead to inflammation in large quantities as our body becomes used to it.3 So while our immune systems haven’t been directly impacted by stay-at-home orders and lockdowns, there is still a large probability it is not operating at 100% just yet. So be sure to continue cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting to take care of your health but also remember to take time to slow down and take care of your mental health as well.
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1Mayo Clinic (2021) Hygiene hypothesis: Does early germ exposure prevent asthma? Retrieved on 5/24/2021 from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/childhood-asthma/expert-answers/hygiene-hypothesis/faq-20058102
2MITMedical (2020) Is all this social distancing weakening our immune systems? Retrieved on 5/25/2021 from: https://medical.mit.edu/covid-19-updates/2020/06/social-distancing-and-immune-system
3Cleveland Clinic (2017) What Happens When Your Immune System Gets Stressed Out? Retrieved on 5/25/2021 from: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-happens-when-your-immune-system-gets-stressed-out/