Can Grief Affect Your Immune System?

Grief, it turns out, is not just emotionally traumatic it can also kill you given half a chance.
Christopher McFadden

Grief is a very natural emotion after losing someone you love. Whilst time does dampen the emotional trauma over time; it can cause some very serious health problems.

From depression to turning to addictive substances to help, grief has been shown to affect the sufferer's mind and body over time. Grief has also been shown to physically weaken your immune system leaving you more prone to succumb to diseases. 

For many sufferers, it is imperative that they are not left alone for prolonged periods of time especially if they are in their golden years. 

In the following article, we'll explore how grief can affect your mind and body. Whilst we have highlighted five areas grief can affect your health, there are many other potential ill-health related issues associated with grief. 


What are the effects of grief?

Grief, whilst being a perfectly normal part of human life, can actually lead to some very serious physical health risks. The loss of a loved one, be it family or friends, is not just psychologically traumatic, it can affect your body too.

There are currently various scientific studies that appear to support anecdotal reports of poor physical health issues whilst grieving for the loss of someone. This can not only dramatically reduce the sufferer's quality of life, but can, in worst cases, be fatal.

grief alone
Source: neys fadzil/Flickr

There are many examples in history of partners dying within a very short time period after their spouse has passed away. 

Former British Prime Minister James Callaghan, for example, died of pneumonia at the grand old age of 92 in 1995. This was just 10 days after his wife of 67 years, Audrey, sadly passed away. 

Another, and probably the most famous example, was Johnny Cash and his partner. Johnny died of complications from his diabetes in 2003, age 71-years-old. It was believed, at the time, that Johnny had been left physically weakened after his wife, June, died four months previously. 

The phenomenon even has its own term, the Widowhood Effect. This is the increased probability of a person dying within a relatively short period after their long-time spouse dies.

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This process of losing a spouse and dying shortly after has also been called "dying of a broken heart". 

But some recent scientific studies have shown that there may actually be some truth to this phenomenon. According to immunologists at the University of Birmingham, losing a loved one can increase stress levels and the propensity for developing depression. 

Not only that, but this can lead to the suppression of the sufferer's immune system. Specifically, it interferes with the function of white blood cells known as neutrophils. 

These little cells are responsible for fighting bacterial infections like pneumonia. Also, this effect becomes more profound the older the patient is. 

Yet other studies since the 2000s have also shown that grief is not only psychologically damaging, but it can also compromise the patient's ability to resist other environmental stressors. 

Grief, it turns out, can kill. 

How can grief affect physical health? 

Humans are social animals by their very nature. We are also one of the few animals that mate for life, though some have attempted to dispute this

For these reasons, especially in elderly couples, the loss of their life partner is particularly devastating. Not only have they lost their loved one, but they may also have lost their only remaining friend. 

This often leaves them alone which raises the potential for them becoming isolated and vulnerable to all kinds of potential problems. This is doubly traumatic for their mental well-being and can raise their chances of having an accident at home

There are various ways grief can affect a sufferer's health. The following are some of the more serious of those: 

1. Grief seriously weakens the immune system

As we have seen above, various scientific studies and anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that grief really can suppress the immune system. A suppressed immune system leaves the patient less able to fight infectious diseases.

Whilst it can be argued it is the disease that actually kills the patient, and this could not have occurred if the immune system was at full strength. 

One study showed that 249 people who lost an infant or child reported a total of 404 acute illnesses during the first year after the death. The most frequent were colds and flu, headaches, anxiety, infections, depression, and angina (severe chest pains).

2. Grief can increase alcohol and substance abuse

grief and alcoholism
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Grief and its associated complications can, it seems, increases the likelihood that a sufferer will attempt to 'self-medicate' to help deal with their problems. This will likely come as no surprise, but alcohol and substance abuse have a whole myriad of health-related problems in and of themselves. 

One particular study of 235 sons and daughters who'd recently lost a parent showed a marked increase in the risk of this kind of issue. The study found that these individuals were around 2.4 times more likely to develop an alcohol and substance problem that others who hadn't lost a parent.

3. Heart-related health issues can be caused by grief

Apart from Broken Heart Syndrome mentioned earlier, grief, it appears, can also increase the likelihood of heart attacks in grief sufferers. One study showed that the risk can increase by as much as 21 times in the first 24 hours than the expected rate.

After about 1 week the risk is less but still significantly raised by around 6 timesThe impact may be greatest among individuals at high cardiovascular risk.

4. Grief has been linked to physical pain

The BBC was able to find, in 2016, that there is a very real link between mental and physical problems. They found through their investigation that pain and emotion pain are processed by the same part of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex. 

It may be the case that severe mental trauma, like grief, could be expressed in the same region of the pain as actual physical pain. This despite the fact that there is nothing obviously physically wrong with the patient. 

5. Grief can disrupt your sleeping patterns

Not only is grief incredibly emotionally distressing, but it has been shown to throw off your sleep patterns. Sleep disorders like insomnia are quite common amongst grief sufferers.

Lack of sleep has been shown to have profound ill-effects on someone's health.

One study of a group of people who'd recently lost their spouse showed that their sleep patterns were extremely disturbed. They were more likely to toss in their sleep, and, as we have seen, were more likely to die prematurely. 

Interestingly, another study in 2010, showed that if grief sufferers sleep patterns can be normalized, they are more likely to cope with their loss more quickly. This shows a clear relationship between grief and sleep.

Whilst time heals, so it is said, trying to ensure you get a good night's sleep will speed up the process.

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