Stress and Your Immune System
By Liisa Hantsoo LiisaHa2-at-mail.med.upenn.edu
Juggling is a skill that many academics pick up in the workplace. You know – the grant application that’s due next week, the lab protocol you need to troubleshoot, and the journal club you’re supposed to lead this afternoon. Experiments to run, data to analyze, manuscripts to write. And while we’re often able to juggle a number of roles and projects, sometimes it can become too much. Have you ever noticed that as soon as the grant deadline has passed, you feel that tickle in your throat indicating that a cold is coming on? It may not be purely coincidence. Research shows that after periods of stress, our immune system is taxed, and is less efficient in fending off germy invaders. In a classic experiment by Sheldon Cohen1 and colleagues, research participants were quarantined, then exposed to nasal drops containing a common cold virus (e.g. rhinovirus) or saline nasal spray. Participants were also asked to report on stress in their lives – whether they felt that their lives were unpredictable, uncontrollable, or overwhelming. The researchers found that rates of respiratory infection and clinical colds increased in a dose-response manner with self-reported psychological stress. The more stressed you felt, the more likely you were to develop a cold after exposure to a virus. This relationship held even after the researchers controlled for factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, exercise, and sleep quality. Reactivation of latent viruses is affected by stress too. In other words, that cold sore erupting on your lip just in time for the conference presentation may be making an appearance due to the stress you’re feeling. A meta-analysis revealed a robust association between psychosocial stress and symptomatic herpes simplex virus (HSV) recurrence2. Increased stress, often operationalized by researchers as exam stress, has also been associated with slower wound healing, worsening of allergies, and exacerbation of eczema 3,4,5.
It is not just how we perceive stress, but how we act in response to it. When analyzing daily social interactions, researchers found that negative or competitive interactions predicted elevated elevated proinflammatory cytokine activity 6. Proinflammatory cytokines have been associated with myriad health issues, ranging from cardiovascular disease to diabetes. So the next time you’re tempted to flip off that driver who cut you off, stop and think about how you’re responding to stress, and how it might affect your health.
How can we protect ourselves from the detrimental effects of stress? In further research by Cohen and colleagues, the team found that having a variety of social relationships helped to buffer against the effects of stress 7. Participants who had few social relationships were four times more likely to become sick after virus exposure than those with a diverse social network. Thus, maintaining social ties may be beneficial for not only emotional health, but also for physical health. Research by Shelley Taylor and colleagues suggests an interesting gender difference in stress and social support. When stressed, women tended to turn to their social networks for support, while men tended to withdraw. However, research has indicated that for both men and women, satisfying and regular social contact is associated with lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines 8,9. Exercise has also been shown to help in managing stress. Men who participated in an exercise group, compared to a control group, had improved mood and improved immune markers 10. Women who had practiced yoga at least 75-90 minutes per week for at least 2 years had lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines than women who were novice yogis 11. If you don’t feel like hitting the gym, meditation may also be beneficial. Regular meditation or relaxation practice may improve one’s immune profile, particularly mindfulness meditation, which is often taught in eight week mindfulness-based stress reduction courses 12, 13. And, that glass of wine with dinner may not be a bad idea. Researchers found that people who drank moderately, and did not smoke, had a lower risk of developing colds 14.
So, the next time you find yourself caught in a juggling act, try to take a moment to catch up with a friend, take a few deep breaths, or squeeze in some exercise. In taking time for yourself, you may be benefiting not only your emotional well-being, but your physical well-being.
1: Cohen, S. et al, 1991. N Engl J Med. 325(9):606-12
2: Chida & Mao, 2009. Brain, Behav, Immun. 23(7):917-25
3: Liu et al., 2002. Am. J. Respir. Crit. Care Med. 165, 1062—1067
4: Langan et al., 2006. Br J Dermatol. 155(3):504-14.
5: Marucha et al., 1998. Psychosom Med. 60(3):362-5.
6: Chiang et al., 2012. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 109(6):1878-82.
7: Cohen & Brissette, 2000. JOSS. 1 (3).
8: Friedman et al., 2005. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 102(51):18757-62.
9: Loucks et al., 2006. Am J Cardiol. 97(7):1010-6.
10: Cassilhas et al., 2010. Percept Mot Skills. 110(1):265-76
11: Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 2010. Psychosom Med. 72(2):113-21.
12: Rosenkranz et al., 2013. Brain Behav Immun. 27(1):174-84.
13: Kiecolt-Glaser et al. 2001. J Consult Clin Psychol. 69(4):674-82.
14: Cohen et al., Am J Public Health. 83(9):1277-83.
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