How Grief Affects Your Immune System

If you're a human, you're probably no stranger to grief. Whether it's a childhood pet, family member, or good friend, losing someone you love is one of the hardest human experiences we have to face. Grief is not linear, and the grieving process may last for weeks, months, or even years. New research shows that it not only affects the heart, but it impacts the immune system, too.

Scientists agree that the death of a loved one is the most stressful event we as humans will face, according to the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. Scientists also used to ascribe to the idea that there are 5 stages of grief that everyone goes through in the following order: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (via Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive). However, this theory is no longer as widely accepted, as studies show that grief is not that straightforward and unchanging. Grief is messy and inconsistent, and what might be normal for one person isn't necessarily the same for another. Instead, current grief research focuses more on attachment theory and cognitive stress theory (via Psychosomatic Medicine).

Grief affects the body as well as the heart

Grief may cause a broken heart, and research shows it might cause a "broken" immune system, too. A 2019 systematic review of 41 years of research published in Psychosomatic Medicine found that adults who are in bereavement often experience changes in their immune system. Studies show that those who are grieving experience higher levels of inflammation, maladaptive immune cell gene expression, and lower antibody response to vaccination, compared to those who aren't grieving. The way that an individual responds to grief, like through depression or anger, influences this connection to immune function.

The elderly have an even harder time with the physical effects of bereavement, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Immunity and Ageing. When suffering from trauma like the death of a loved one, levels of the stress hormone cortisol surge throughout the body, which compromises the immune system. In younger people, this is balanced out with another hormone called DHEAS, which is also secreted in response to stress but is immune-enhancing. However, as we age, our DHEAS levels decline while cortisol remains unchanged. This imbalance can contribute to lower immune function in older adults who are suffering from the stress of bereavement.