Most of us know from experience that stress weakens our immune system. Colds always seem to strike when we're overworked or emotionally exhausted, as do eczema flare-ups, headaches and a myriad of other health problems.
Doctors long ago confirmed that the connection between stress and health is real, but they haven't been able to fully explain it. Now, in a new study, researchers say they've identified a specific biological process linking life stressors - such as money trouble or divorce - to an illness.
In this case it's the common cold. Most research in this area has focused on cortisol, the so-called stress hormone released by the adrenal glands when we feel threatened or anxious. One of cortisol's jobs is to temporarily dampen the immune system, specifically the inflammatory response, in order to free up energy to deal with threats.
The fact that cortisol suppresses inflammation presents a puzzle: People who are chronically stressed tend to have higher levels of cortisol, yet the sneezing, sniffling and coughing of the average cold are actually caused by the inflammatory response to a virus, not the virus itself.
Shouldn't stress therefore prevent cold symptoms?
The authors of the new study have an answer: The key factor that influences a person's vulnerability to illness appears to be the immune system's sensitivity to cortisol, not his or her cortisol levels per se. And chronic stress, the study suggests, may weaken the body's responsiveness to the hormone, allowing the inflammation that causes cold symptoms to run wild.
"Stressed people's immune cells become less sensitive to cortisol," says lead author Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. "They're unable to regulate the inflammatory response, and therefore, when they're exposed to a virus, they're more likely to develop a cold."
Cohen and his colleagues tested their theory in a pair of experiments, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the first, they interviewed 276 healthy men and women about the sources of psychological stress in their lives over the previous year, including unhappy work situations, long-term conflicts with family or friends, or legal or financial woes. And then they tried to get them sick. Health.com: Job killing you? 8 types of work-related stress
The researchers gave each study participant nasal drops containing a rhinovirus (a common cold-causing virus) and quarantined them for five days, during which 39% of the volunteers came down with a cold. Those who were stressed-out had double the risk of falling ill, even after age, body mass index and a host of other factors were taken into account.
When the researchers went back and looked at blood tests taken a week or two earlier, they found no link between blood cortisol levels and the likelihood of getting sick. However, they did find that the typical relationship between cortisol and inflammation - as one rises, the other tends to fall - seemed to be disrupted in people who were stressed-out and in those who developed colds.
In these groups, cortisol levels had no bearing on inflammation (as measured by the levels of certain white blood cells), suggesting that "stressed people were... resistant" to cortisol and "non-stressed people were not," Cohen says.
A second, smaller experiment that used a different measure of inflammation confirmed the link between cortisol resistance and higher levels of inflammation.
Although a cure for the common cold is still a long ways off, the findings do raise the possibility that there may be "ways of intervening when a person is chronically stressed, possibly pharmacologically, to influence this kind of process," Cohen says.
An intervention of that sort wouldn't only be useful during cold-and-flu season, since a wide range of health problems have been linked to stress and inflammation, including heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.
The study "implies that other diseases where the control of inflammation is important would be influenced in the same way—that we could find the same sort of mechanisms operating in those cases," Cohen says.
Source of this article "CNN Health"
Thanks, very interesting. I find that getting very little sleep always causes some sort of flu or cold symptom.
Yeah! stress affects the immune system.
This makes sense as an explanation, since inflammation is a very, very complicated and multifaceted process and it is at the root of many diseases.
Diseases caused By Stress
What are the diseases caused by stress and how are these diseases caused by stress? The effect of stress on the body can have far reaching effects on each and every system of the body.
The translation of emotional distress to physiological change, and thence to a physical symptom is known as 'transduction'. In transduction, a situation is perceived, a meaning is assigned to it, an emotional response is elicited and a physiological reaction results. A complex autoimmune, humoral and neuromuscular mechanisms mediate this reaction, and may itself affect the environment, generating in turn a social response that may yield either a positive or negative feedback.
See the diagram to understand the basic effects of stress on various systems and organs of our body.
Somatization, or conversion of psychological distress into physical illness, is a very important concept that recognizes that an emotionally distressed patient more often presents with physical symptoms than psychological complaints.
Nemiah et al believe that people who somatize are alexythymic. Meaning, they simply cannot express feelings in words and must, therefore, resort to expressing them in physical symptoms.
A few diseases either induced, sustained or exacerbated by stress are listed in table .The list is by no means complete. While in some of these diseases stress is only one among the factors responsible for the aetio- pathogenesis, in others stress is the main perpetuator. Thus stress diseases are as varied as there are organs in the body.
Thank you Hope, this was actually extremely helpful to me personally. My mom is the most accepting, loving person I know. She has rheumatoid arthritis, lower-back problems, OCD *among other fun things* and is always stressed out. I knew that stress lowered her immune system and thats why she got sick so easilly but I never would've guess that it could cause her RA to flare up.
There are some diseases you can never truely "beat" or "cure" however, if we can get more information on how to better control that which causes a disease then we are more prepared to prevent and/or fight it. If you can't overcome a disability or disease 100% then your next best option is to make it more managable for the afflicted.
I hope your mom gets well soon.. BTW, I found this link and hope it helps too.