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How to Stay Healthy: Can Being a Caregiver Damage Your Immune System?

Being a caregiver puts both physical and emotional stress on the body. That stress can affect the immune system, making it more difficult for your body to fight colds and other infections. In addition, a weakened immune system could mean increased recovery times — wounds might take longer to heal, flu symptoms might persist, and you may even have an increased risk for serious conditions like cancer and heart disease.

You’ve probably heard a lot of advice about how to stay healthy and stress-free as a caregiver, but that advice can be easy to ignore when you’re busy juggling your career, family, personal life, and caregiver duties simultaneously. So, what can you do to manage your stress and boost your body’s natural immunity? Let’s start with the facts:

The Relationship Between Stress and the Immune System

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explored the link between stress and lowered immune reactions, finding that negatively stressful situations increase individuals’ cytokine levels. Increased levels of these proteins, which indicate inflammation, can lead to a range of serious health problems over time. A host of recent studies have reached similar conclusions when studying family caregivers in particular. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA), caregivers can experience a 15 percent decrease in the antibody responses that fight off common colds.

Another aspect of caregiving that can often be detrimental to caregivers’ health is a lack of time. Many caregivers report that they know how to stay healthy, but they just don’t have enough time to implement the appropriate behaviors. According to the FCA, about 60 percent of all caregivers report that they don’t eat as well or exercise as much since taking on their caregiver duties.

Managing Stress
Reducing stress seems to be key in helping caregivers remain healthy. Recognizing and managing stress is, therefore, an important part of caregiver health. Talk to your doctor about stress management strategies, including a few of these:

  • Schedule regular time away from your duties.
  • Learn to meditate, do yoga, or participate in other relaxation exercises.
  • Engage in regular exercise, such as attending an aerobics class or biking.
  • Start a new hobby you enjoy.
  • Eat healthy and get ample sleep.
  • Join a social club or support group.
  • Seek professional counseling if needed.

The Benefits of Caregiving
If your stress is managed well, evidence suggests that caring for a loved one can positively influence your health. In fact, caregiving can encourage healthy living, which may mean a longer life. A study led by the Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health found that caregivers had a nine-month-longer life expectancy over the six years the study was conducted, or an 18 percent survival advantage over their non-caregiver counterparts.

Knowing how to stay healthy as a caregiver isn’t just about eating lots of vegetables and taking regular trips to the gym. Caring for your emotional health and maintaining low levels of stress are vital to your overall health. Living a low-stress lifestyle can keep you happier and boost your immune system, allowing you to take on any challenge life throws your way.

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If you enjoyed this article, you may also like our blog post on avoiding caregiver role strain.

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