How Stressors May Influence White Blood Cell Counts

Stuck in a cycle of fatigue, anxiety, and colds? Here's why your white blood cells might hold the answer.

Daniesha Govender
By Daniesha Govender
Caitlin Snethlage
Edited by Caitlin Snethlage

Published May 12, 2024.

A woman sitting at a desk with her eyes closed trying to relax while surrounded by stressors.

In this article

What are WBCs?

How do we measure WBC count?

The effect of different stressors on WBCs

Strategies for managing stressors

Show More

Did you know that stress lowers your defenses? It's true! Your white blood cells (WBCs)—the frontline soldiers of the immune system—aren't resistant to its effects.

When you worry too much, the body releases cortisol, which can suppress their effectiveness. This effect can invite various foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria. But here's the good news: You can maintain a fighting shape through some effective management techniques.

Every step you take towards this goal can help support your WBCs in their fight to keep you healthy.



Key takeaways

  • WBCs are your body's defense. Neutrophils, lymphocytes, monocytes, eosinophils, and basophils help your immune system fight infection and inflammation.
  • Chronic stress can lead to an abnormal rise in neutrophils and a decrease in lymphocytes, weakening the immune system.
  • Techniques like meditation, exercise, sleep, and a healthy diet can help manage stress for a healthy immune system.
  • A blood test measures WBCs, but abnormal levels require further testing for diagnosis.


What are WBCs?

WBCs—also called leukocytes—circulate in the bloodstream and defend the body against bacteria, viruses, and toxic substances. There are five main types, each with a specialized role:

  • Neutrophils: Migrate to sites of infection and injury as the immune system's first line of defense. There, they use phagocytosis to ingest and destroy invading pathogens. [1]
  • Lymphocytes: Consist of T cells, which fight contamination and cancer directly. They also contain B cells that create antibodies that latch onto and neutralize foreign particles.
  • Monocytes: Circulate in the bloodstream for a while before migrating into tissues. They transform into macrophages, smothering foreign invaders and debris to keep your body healthy. [2]
  • Eosinophils: Increase in allergic reactions and certain diseases. They move around the body and release chemicals to fight infections. [3]
  • Basophils: Release histamine, a chemical that triggers inflammation, helping the body fight allergies. [4]

How do we measure WBC count?

A complete blood count (CBC) test is a routine procedure that analyzes the sum of your red and white cells. It also looks at platelets, which stop bleeding by gathering at the site of injury.

Abnormal WBC sum can point to infections, inflammation, immune conditions, or bone marrow issues. But they aren't definitive. Doctors typically consider your symptoms, medical history, and other results to diagnose accurately. Then, they might suggest assessments such as:

  • Differential count exam, which breaks down the total WBC count into individual parts like neutrophils or lymphocytes.
  • C-reactive protein (CRP) and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) measure inflammation in the body.
  • Autoimmune disorder checks if they suspect this kind of reaction.
  • Allergy inspection for potential external causes impacting WBC response.
  • Infection-specific investigation, depending on suspicions.

Note: WBC counts naturally fluctuate throughout the day, with dips in the morning and peaks in the evening. But, various factors can cause more significant changes, and stress is one of them.



» Learn about what it means if your white blood cell count is low

The effect of different stressors on WBCs

Psychological

Our body releases cortisol, adrenaline, and catecholamines when we're stressed. They act as a natural alarm, temporarily increasing WBC production, especially neutrophils. This short-term boost usually helps us combat potential threats, but what happens if there are none?

Chronically high cortisol has negative consequences for the immune system. It suppresses neutrophil creation and reduces the effectiveness of WBCs. This might damage healthy tissues and put people at risk of heart disease and autoimmune disorders.

It can also trigger inflammation that overwhelms the body by dampening lymphocyte formation. These cells are crucial for fighting infections, so your system becomes more susceptible to viruses, bacteria, and even the development of cancer.

Physical

Intense exercise, injuries, surgeries, and infections also temporarily influence WBC dynamics. These changes are typically transient and serve a specific purpose in the body's response to the stressor.

  • Neutrophilia: Acute stressors often trigger a rise in neutrophils as an immediate defense mechanism. It helps combat potential infections that might occur during the bodily response. [5]
  • Lymphopenia: At the same time, lymphocytes might drop so the body can prioritize immediate threats while conserving resources.

Strenuous exercise can dip immune function for a moment, which could be due to the stress the athletes put on the body. This decrease in WBC counts makes them more vulnerable to infections. [6] That's why they should focus on proper recovery, nutrition, and hygiene.

» Find out how to address runner's stomach

Environmental

How severe your WBC response is depends on your age, health, and genetics. Long-term exposure to stress can lead to chronic inflammation or worsen your allergies. 

Pollutants—like ozone or PM 2.5—toxins, allergens, or extreme temperatures can also significantly affect the outcome. Here's how it happens:

  • These contaminants can trigger the immune system, causing WBCs to overreact, leading to unnecessary inflammation and exacerbating existing conditions. [7]
  • Exposure to pollen or toxic substances in the air can affect eosinophil levels. People with asthma might experience a more pronounced reaction than healthy individuals. [8]



Strategies for managing stressors

The good news is that you can support your immune system and mitigate the impact of stressors on your WBCs. Here are some key strategies:

  • Relaxation techniques: Meditation, deep breathing exercises, and mindfulness can help you manage stress effectively. They can lead to a healthier immune response. [9]
  • Regular physical activity: Moderate exercise like walking or yoga reduces and improves overall health. [10] Aim for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.
  • Adequate sleep: Studies have shown that sleep deprivation increases total WBC count, particularly neutrophils. You should ideally get at least 7–8 hours of shut-eye per night. [11,12]
  • Healthy diet: A balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains gives your body the essential nutrients needed to maintain WBCs. [13] You should also hydrate throughout the day.

Fight back with a strong immune system

Chronic stress lurks everywhere—work deadlines, financial burdens, intense gym sessions, and a noise-polluted city. These seemingly ordinary factors disrupt your body's balance of white blood cells (WBCs).

You can address the issue by using InsideTracker's Ultimate Plan, which measures your WBC count. This plan can give you insights into the potential cause of the rise in your levels, helping your doctor diagnose the cause.

The platform also analyzes cortisol alongside key biomarkers like Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and sleep quality. This detailed picture helps you better understand how tension impacts your overall well-being.

By analyzing these various aspects of your health, InsideTracker creates personalized, science-backed recommendations to help you boost your immune system. They might include techniques for stress management, strategies to improve sleep, dietary tweaks, or tailored exercise instructions.

Disclaimer: InsideTracker doesn't diagnose or treat medical conditions. Consult your physician if you have any health concerns.



References

[1] P. X. Liew and P. Kubes, “The neutrophil’s role during health and disease,” Physiological Reviews, vol. 99, no. 2, pp. 1223–1248, Apr. 2019, doi: 10.1152/physrev.00012.2018. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30758246/

[2] A. Coillard and É. Segura, “In vivo Differentiation of Human Monocytes,” Frontiers in Immunology, vol. 10, Aug. 2019, doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2019.01907. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31456804/

[3] L. Gigon, T. Fettrelet, S. Yousefi, D. Simon, and H. Simon, “Eosinophils from A to Z,” Allergy, vol. 78, no. 7, pp. 1810–1846, May 2023, doi: 10.1111/all.15751. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37102676/

[4] C. Schwartz, J. U. Eberle, and D. Voehringer, “Basophils in inflammation,” European Journal of Pharmacology, vol. 778, pp. 90–95, May 2016, doi: 10.1016/j.ejphar.2015.04.049. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25959388/

[5] “Neutrophilia,” PubMed, Jan. 01, 2024. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34033333/ Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34033333/

[6] H. Moir et al., “Exercise-induced immunosuppression: roles of reactive oxygen species and 5′-AMP-activated protein kinase dephosphorylation within immune cells,” Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 108, no. 5, pp. 1284–1292, May 2010, doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00737.2009. Avalable: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20167678/

[7] T. Suzuki, T. Hidaka, Y. Kumagai, and M. Yamamoto, “Environmental pollutants and the immune response,” Nature Immunology, vol. 21, no. 12, pp. 1486–1495, Oct. 2020, doi: 10.1038/s41590-020-0802-6. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33046888/

[8] P. Lee, S. Park, Y.-G. Lee, S.-M. Choi, M. An, and A. Jang, “The impact of environmental pollutants on barrier dysfunction in respiratory disease,” Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Research, vol. 13, no. 6, p. 850, Jan. 2021, doi: 10.4168/aair.2021.13.6.850. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34734504/

[9] M. C. Pascoe, D. R. Thompson, Z. Jenkins, and C. F. Ski, “Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis,” Journal of Psychiatric Research, vol. 95, pp. 156–178, Dec. 2017, doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2017.08.004. Avalable: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28863392/

[10] E. M. Paolucci, D. Loukov, D. M. E. Bowdish, and J. J. Heisz, “Exercise reduces depression and inflammation but intensity matters,” Biological Psychology, vol. 133, pp. 79–84, Mar. 2018, doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2018.01.015. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29408464/

[11] H. Veler, “Sleep and inflammation,” Sleep Medicine Clinics, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 213–218, Jun. 2023, doi: 10.1016/j.jsmc.2023.02.003. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37120163/

[12] S. Garbarino, P. Lanteri, N. L. Bragazzi, N. Magnavita, and E. Scoditti, “Role of sleep deprivation in immune-related disease risk and outcomes,” Communications Biology, vol. 4, no. 1, Nov. 2021, doi: 10.1038/s42003-021-02825-4. Available: https://www.nature.com/articles/s42003-021-02825-4

[13] J. K. Kiecolt‐Glaser, “Stress, Food, and inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and Nutrition at the cutting edge,” Psychosomatic Medicine, vol. 72, no. 4, pp. 365–369, May 2010, doi: 10.1097/psy.0b013e3181dbf489. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2868080/