The Effects of Stress on the Immune System

Numerous studies have shown that anxiety, trauma, and chronic exposure to stress have a negative impact on our health. We are all aware of the tragic effects of PTSD on soldiers returning from war zones, but PTSD — or symptoms similar to it — affect many people who have never been to war..

Studies have shown that, in particular, chronic stress is directly linked with a negative impact on memory and also raise the risk of both heart attack and stroke.

Recently, a group of scientists, led by Dr. Jennifer Graham-Engeland, a professor at Pennsylvania State University in State College, PA, conducted a study to analyze the effects of stress and negative moods on the immune system. The results of their research were published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

The researchers examined the emotional status of their participants using a variety of standardized tests. These tests allowed them to obtain accurate data which reflected participant moods throughout the study. The researchers also collected blood samples from the participants in order to look for biomarkers of inflammation.

Why look for inflammation? When an individual’s body is assaulted by infection, wound, or chronic disease, inflammation is an automatic response of the immune system. Dr. Graham-Engeland and her team showed that individuals who experienced negative moods or stressful events several times each day, had higher levels of biomarkers for inflammation in their blood than participants who did not have these negative experiences.

A striking aspect of the team’s research demonstrated that when blood samples were collected immediately following a negative event, a feeling of sadness, or anger, inflammation biomarkers in the blood were shown to be immediately increased.

However, one surprising finding of their research showed that the converse was not quite true: when blood samples were collected immediately following a positive event or a feeling of happiness, inflammation biomarkers in the blood decreased only in male participants, but not female participants. The reason for this phenomenon is not yet understood.

Since the participants in the study were drawn from diverse socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, the researchers are confident that their analysis demonstrates that chronic stress, chronic negative moods, and chronic sadness, are likely to lead to an inflammatory response, indicative of an assault on the immune system.

In the words of the lead author Dr.Graham-Engeland, “Because affect [mood] is modifiable, we are excited about these findings and hope that they will spur additional research to understand the connection between affect and inflammation, which in turn may promote novel psychological interventions that promote health broadly and help break the cycle that can lead to chronic inflammation, disability, and disease.”

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