Monday, August 27, 2007

Stress and Your Immune System


You have a lot to do, at home and at work. There are several deadlines to be met, and projects to be completed. In a valiant effort to get it all done you work late into the night, sometimes getting only three to four hours of sleep before the next morning. Perhaps you are suffering from the emotional stress associated with the death or illness of a loved one. Being in bed for a week is the last thing you need. Then it happens… you get sick. A pre-existing condition flares up, your allergies seem more severe, you catch the ‘flu, or worse! Is there a connection with the sudden increase in stress and your illness? Some researchers think that the evidence points to a definite link between severe physical or emotional stress and a malfunctioning immune system.

Our immune system protects us from disease through a series of complex interactions between specialized cells, tissues and chemicals in the body. These interactions enable the human body to fight infection and destroy cancer cells and other foreign invaders. When the immune mechanism breaks down you become more susceptible to tumors and to infectious organisms such as the influenza virus. Several studies have examined the effects of “life stress”, emotional stress, and chronic stress on different aspects of the immune response.

Stress and Immunity

The field of study that examines the link between stress and the immune system is known as psychoneuroimmunology. Several studies in this area indicate that physical and emotional stress can have either good or bad effects on the immune system’s response. There is considerable evidence that mild or moderate physical or emotional stress benefits the immune system; some researchers suggest that mild infections are limited during stressful conditions, however as soon as the stress is alleviated the individual succumbs to the infection. This theory explains the occurrence of weekend colds and other health related problems after stressful week. There is evidence also, that in addition to promoting a feeling of well-being, mild to moderate physical exercise is beneficial to the immune system. Several studies show that after moderate exercise, such as a forty-five minute walk, the cells of the immune system are redistributed, the number of N-K cells in the circulation increase, and the T-cells become more responsive to stimuli. Scientists suggest that the reason for this is in the initial stages of a stressful event, the immune system receives signals that it will be needed for wound healing or to fight infection, and becomes activated in response.

Conversely, research as well as anecdotal evidence indicates that athletes who engage in excessive endurance type activities such as marathons, distance swimming, skiing and professional ballet dancing have a higher incidence of colds and allergies, and decreased wound healing. The results are similar in cases of emotional stress. Medical students have been shown to become more prone to colds and flares of Herpes virus infections (cold sores) during stressful examination periods. Individuals appear more likely to develop type I diabetes mellitus when they have been exposed to stressors either associated with illness or emotional stress, and asthma sufferers and patients with type II diabetes mellitus experience more severe symptoms when they experience stressful situations.

In some individuals the immune system becomes abnormal and instead of performing its protective role against attack from external or abnormal agents, begins to attack and destroy the cells and tissues of the body. The diseases that result from this attack are known as autoimmune diseases; the more commonly occurring examples include systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus), Grave’s disease of the thyroid, and rheumatoid arthritis. There are several reports that indicate that individuals who develop these diseases oftentimes experience chronic stress prior to the onset of these conditions. There is also considerable evidence that, in individuals with autoimmune diseases, symptoms are worse during times of stress. Although there are many theories about the causes of autoimmunity, stress appears to play a role. It is also interesting to note that many autoimmune disorders, such as lupus and Grave’s disease, occur more commonly in women than in men.

Other disease conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases also appear to be related to chronic stress. It is an accepted fact that a person’s outlook on life or their psychological state affects recovery from heart attacks and cancer. Studies on breast cancer patients indicate that a positive outlook and active stress reduction practices result in a better response to treatment, a shorter recovery period, and a better long-term outcome. In heart disease it is recognized that constant release of the catecholamine stress hormones affect the diameter of the blood vessels, damage the cells lining the vessels, increase blood pressure and the demand of the tissues for oxygen, and predispose the individual to heart attacks.

Life is stressful! Everyone faces situations on a daily basis that trigger the stress reaction and cause release of the “stress hormones”. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared that workplace stress has reached epidemic proportions with a significant economic cost due to lost workdays and stress related disability. In addition there is stress at home, in our relationships with spouses, children, parents, and significant others. In the face of all of this how can we protect our health? Remember that some stress is beneficial. It improves our productivity and temporarily boosts our immune system in the initial response to the stress. However, as we can see, chronic, unremitting stress is harmful. To protect our immune system and other body systems we need to alter our response to these stressful situations. A calmer approach to stressful events, the use of relaxation techniques, moderate exercise and good nutrition all go a long way in reducing chronic stress and preventing the associated diseases.

-Marguerite E. Neita, PhD., MT(ASCP) for The Coup Magazine 2007
*Art provided by Kula Moore for
The Coup Magazine 2007

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