Saturday, November 3, 2007

Stress and Its Impact on the Body's Natural Microbial Defenses

Everyone knows that there are a lot of health issues for those living with stress; in fact, damage from stress can affect most of the major organs and bodily systems. Now, a team of researchers has found that there is another part of the body affected . . . they've identified the biological mechanism by which stress increases susceptibility to skin infections.

Interestingly, this appears to have nothing to do with the classic explanation of the immune system breaking down; Study author Dr. Peter Elias, a professor of dermatology at the University of California (San Francisco) believes that it's a breakdown in the skin's antimicrobial defense. This study appears in the November issue of The Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Elias and his team subjected mice to psychological stress and found them more susceptible to group A Streptococcus pyogenes skin infections than mice kept under less stressful conditions. When these results were analyzed more closely, it was discovered that the stressed-out mice showed a decrease in the expression of antimicrobial peptides by the skin's epidermis.

The high stress levels had somehow convinced the body to slow down in the production of these important antimicrobials.

Streptococcal bacteria can cause many problems, such as skin infections, severe sore throats and even the flesh-eating disease that has been seen notably in hospital environments. The role of the peptides that Elias and his team studied have come to light in recent years, and it has been found that they are the "front line" of the immune system. They act like antibiotics, attacking bacteria and killing them on the skin, before the microbes have the chance to enter the body.

In the study, this research team also found that stress led to the increased production of glucocorticoids, which inhibited the synthesis of fat in the skin's epidermis. This reduced the secretion of vesicles containing antimicrobial peptides, setting up the mice for skin problems of all kinds. Skin infections became more severe in the stressed-out animals.

When Elias' team blocked the production of the glucocorticoids, the skin's antimicrobial defenses returned to normal.

While many people think of the immune system's T-cells, which attack invaders, as the first line of defense, recent research suggests otherwise. "The antimicrobial defense mechanisms are so effective, they deal with 99.5 percent of all challenges by microbial pathogens, such as bad viruses, bad bacteria," said the study's lead author.

In an accompanying commentary, Dr. Andrzej Slominski, of the University of Tennessee, wrote that "this study provides what I believe to be the first mechanistic link between psychological stress and increased susceptibility to microbial infection." The research may eventually lead to new treatment options.

One of the best options available would be the preventative option; see a naturopath or holistic MD and discuss your options for stress reduction, which may include meditation, yoga, or perhaps supplementation with herbs like Arctic Root®, whose most recent double-blind, placebo-controlled studies show a great effect upon mood support and stress relief.


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