In a new report just published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychologist Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser from the Ohio State University College of Medicine reviews research investigating how stress can wreak havoc on our bodies and provides some suggestions to further our understanding of this connection. Anyone who's gotten a cold during exam time or who has felt run-down after a big meeting may suspect that feeling sick often follows a particularly stressful time at work or school.
In the publication, Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser asks, is this merely coincidence, or is it possible that stress can actually make us sick?
There is a developing field of study in this area, called "psychoneuroimmunology," (or PNI) that investigates how stress and negative emotions (such as depression and anxiety) affect our health. Over the past 30 years, researchers in this field have uncovered a number of ways that stress adversely affects our health, and specifically, how stress can damage our immune system. Kiecolt-Glaser refers to significant previous research about stress and its effect on vaccines and the immune system when she writes, "The evidence that stress and distress impair vaccine responses has obvious public health relevance because infectious diseases can be so deadly."
In other studies, stress and depression have been shown to increase the risk of getting infections. They have also resulted in delayed wound healing.
Our bodies use Inflammation as the body's way of removing harmful stimuli; this also starts the process of healing, via release of a variety of chemicals known as proinflammatory cytokines (e.g., interleukin-6). Too much of this inflammation can be a very bad thing. This has been implicated in the development of many age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's disease, arthritis, and Type II diabetes.
Negative emotions and psychological stressors increase the production of proinflammatory cytokines. A recent study revealed that men and women who serve as caregivers to spouses with dementia (a group of people who are under constant stress) have a four times larger annual rate of increase in serum interleukin-6 levels compared to individuals without caregiving responsibilities. Studies like this one prove the connection between stress and disease.
Sadly, even following the death of the impaired spouse, the changes in interleukin-6 levels among former caregivers did not differ from current caregivers, indicating that chronic stress may cause the immune system to age quickly. The effects of stress stay in the body, causing great harm. Kiecolt-Glaser says in her article, "These stress-related changes in inflammation provide evidence of one mechanism through which stressors may accelerate risk of a host of age-related diseases."
Kiecolt-Glaser argues that diet may modify interactions between psychological and immunological responses. Her suggestion is that Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish and walnuts) can be used to reduce production of some of these proinflammtory chemicals. (Also, it has been shown that increasing levels of omega-3 fatty acids may result in positive effects on mood and the immune system). While the author does not delve further in this article into other methods of stress reduction, they would include exercise, meditation and even some natural products such as the herb Rhodiola rosea.
My family has taken Rhodiola rosea for more than seven or eight years, as a daily tonic. Each of us now relies on that herb to melt away the extraordinary levels of stress that modern life can bring on. My son, age 21 now and a senior in college, uses additional MIND BODY & SPIRIT, a quality Rhodiola rosea product, during exam times, as Rhodiola's other benefit is the additional mental clarity that it brings. Personally, I can feel it within 30 minutes or so as it lifts the burden of stress off my shoulders. Like any herb, however, you may need to take Rhodiola rosea for a few weeks in order to start reaping the advantages. We combine Omega-3 fatty acids and MIND BODY & SPIRIT in our home to great effect.