A Stressed Person is a Sick Person

Chronic stress associated with inflammation and progression of disease

(RxWiki News) It has long been known that stress can wreak havoc on your health, that you can literally worry yourself sick. The reasons for this phenomenon are becoming more clear.

By studying the immune systems of adults with high stress levels after they were exposed to the common cold, researchers in Pittsburgh have made the correlation between chronic stress and one losing their ability to regulate inflammation, which promotes the development and progression of disease.

"Talk to your doctor if stress is making you sick."

Led by Carnegie Mellon University’s Sheldon Cohen, a research team theorized that prolonged stress alters the effectiveness of the hormone cortisol to regulate inflammation in one’s body. The reason is because stress decreases tissue sensitivity to cortisol.

Runaway inflammation is thought to promote the development and progression of many diseases, according to the study..

"...When cortisol is not allowed to serve this function, inflammation can get out of control," said Cohen, the Robert E. Doherty Professor of Psychology within CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Cohen, who holds a doctorate in psychology, tested his theory by using the common cold, in which symptoms are not caused by the virus, but instead by a side effect of the inflammatory response that is triggered while the body tries to fight the infection.

In a study of 276 adults, Cohen found that people who experienced a prolonged stressful event  had immune cells in their bodies which were unable to respond to hormone signals that regulate inflammation. Those people were also more likely to develop the common cold when exposed to the virus.

"The immune system's ability to regulate inflammation predicts who will develop a cold, but more importantly it provides an explanation of how stress can promote disease," Cohen said. "When under stress, cells of the immune system are unable to respond to hormonal control, and consequently, produce levels of inflammation that promote disease. Because inflammation plays a role in many diseases such as cardiovascular, asthma and autoimmune disorders, this model suggests why stress impacts them as well."

He added, "Knowing this is important for identifying which diseases may be influenced by stress and for preventing disease in chronically stressed people."

The authors of the study added, “Because inflammation plays an important role in the onset and progression of a wide range of diseases, this model may have broad implications for understanding the role of stress in health.”

This study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institute of Mental Health, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health. Its authors reported no conflicts of interest.

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Review Date: 
April 4, 2012