Stress, Inflammation, Immunity

By Robert Kress RPh, Functional Pharmacy

Stress, Inflammation, Immunity

The immune system is an intricate network consisting of processes, systems, cells, tissues, and organs that work together to defend the body against attacks by “foreign” invaders.

Where the immune system has many individual components, such as passive, innate, and adaptive immunity, there is a direct correlation from outside influences of how efficient the immune system can or cannot work.

Stress has both benefits and downfalls. Stress is an adaptive energy needed for growth and strengthening. We have evolved through the fight or flight response, which provides the physical energy and mental focus to remove us from dangerous situations (Segerstrom, 2006).

Examples of good stress include physical stress on muscles or the vasculature system to further strengthen, alertness as a psychological stress needed to take an exam, or pay attention driving during bad weather. (Cleveland Clinic, 2017)

When stress becomes chronic and mismanaged it is a detriment to our health and well-being.

Examples of unhealthy stress include inadequate recovery from physical, mental and emotional stress of any kind. This could be related to exercise, constant worrying and repetitive thoughts of a negative nature, and even emotions such as depression and anxiety (Cleveland Clinic, 2017).

Prolonged stress leads to hyper physiological levels of cortisol. This alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate both the inflammatory and immune response because it decreases tissue sensitivity to cortisol (Segerstrom, 2006).

As the human body heals, inflammation becomes a response to stress. Like stress, inflammation is beneficial, although when stress becomes chronic, it can lead to constant tissue breakdown and impairment of the immune system.

Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh has said, "Stressed people's immune cells become less sensitive to cortisol. 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, 2004).

The way stress impacts the immune system can be assessed numerous ways.
  •   Measurements of inflammatory markers, including cytokines, a group of chemical messengers which affect   the behavior of immune cells.
  •   The response by the immune system itself, including activation and advancement of disease.
  •   Assessing the subject’s inability to cope with stressors, such as negative mood associated with general   stress, anxiety and depression, and types of life events that take place near the time of stressor (Glaser, 2005).

In patients with HIV (human immune deficiency virus), it has been shown that AIDs progresses faster in individuals experiencing higher stress. Studies in animals with simian immune deficiency virus (SIV), have found that animals that met every day and have lots of social support (a combatant to stress) have decreased concentrations of SIV in blood stream compared to those with unstable support (Glaser, 2005).

Humans undergoing psychological stressors have exhibited an increased recurrence of lesions in Herpes Simplex Virus-1(HSV) and HSV-2, while increased stress has also resulted in an increased frequency in occurrences of HSV-1 and HSV-2 outbreaks. (Glaser, 2005).

With the increased attention being placed on vaccines, the research behind stress and vaccinations is captivating.

It is believed that for a vaccine to work, there needs to be both antibody and virus specific T-cell response. Changes in immune response by stress, can negatively impact both antibody and T-cell responses to viral vaccines (Glaser, 2005).

Research on medical students, experiencing academic stress, who have been inoculated with Hepatitis B, has shown that students who had less stress had stronger antibody and T-cell response (Glaser, 2005).

Spousal care givers of dementia patients inoculated with influenza have exhibited a weaker antibody and T-cell response. Caregivers inoculated with pneumococcal and meningitis produced lower levels of antibodies to vaccines than control groups. (Glaser, 2005)

As one can see, stress can have a negative impact in various situations and cases on one’s immune system. This highlights the importance of counseling patients on the importance of stress management in hopes of optimizing their immune systems.

Cleveland Clinic (2017) Stress. Retrieved from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11874-stress

Cohen, S., (2004) 5 Studies of behavior, biology, and the common cold: A data repository. The Common Cold Project. Retrieved from: https://www.cmu.edu/common-cold-project/

Glaser, R., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. (2005) Stress damages immune system and health. Discovery Medicine. 26. 165-169. Retrieved from: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/ed66/100f4233fed03b78bdababbec814938d1a1c.pdf

Segerstrom, S., Miller, G., (2006) Psychological stress and the human immune system: A meta-analytic study of 30 years inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, 130(4), 601-630. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361287/

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