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Sick of Stress or Sick from Stress?

Stress-Induced Infectious Diseases

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Updated August 26, 2014

Office worker stressed and upset in office
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Financial woes? Divorce? Final exams? Most people face some degree of stress on a daily basis but have found ways to manage and adapt to short-term “acute” stresses. Severe, prolonged “chronic” stress, on the other hand, has negative effects on the human body, including increasing the bodies' risk for infections.

Can stress really increase your risk for infections?

Yes. Studies have shown that people with greater levels of continuous stress are more prone to getting some infectious diseases. It is important to note, however, that stress levels differ from person-to-person, due to individual differences in a person’s emotional and physiological makeup. Therefore, a situation that causes significant stress for one person may or may not have the same effect on another.

What happens to your body when you are stressed?

  • Acute Stress Response: The acute stress response is an immediate response to a stressful event. The body’s immediate response is to release chemicals, called “stress hormones,” which are used by the body to make energy. This energy is diverted to muscle and brain tissues, and certain cells of the immune system become more active.
  • Chronic Stress Response: Chronic stress occurs when a person has continuous acute stress responses. Chronic stress results in more sustained changes in the body, such as increased blood pressure, for instance, which over time can result in damaged arteries and heart disease. The continuous increase in stress hormones can also result in suppression of the immune system’s white blood cells, leading to an increased risk of infections.

How does your immune system react to infections when you are stressed?

Your body has an “innate” immune response, which is the first line of defense that provides an immediate response to infectious microbes, before your body begins to generate an “adaptive” immune response, in which microbes are specifically targeted and attacked by white blood cells.

  • Acute stress: Researchers have found that during periods of acute stress, cells of the innate immune system are more active and increase their circulation throughout the body in order to patrol for infectious microbes.
  • Chronic stress: During periods of chronic stress, the adaptive immune system is suppressed due to continually high levels of stress hormones. As a result, your body is slower at healing wounds, less able to produce antibodies and more susceptible to viral infections. These effects are even more pronounced in the elderly, whose immune systems are already weakened.

Which infections are you more likely to get when you’re stressed?

Common Cold A study at Carnegie Mellon University, published in 1991, showed that the risk for common cold was proportional to the degree of stress in a person’s life. A subsequent study in 1998 showed that people who had chronic stress (due to life events, such as unemployment or interpersonal difficulties) for at least one month were more likely to get the common cold than those who had shorter durations of stress.

AIDS. A UNC-Chapel Hill study, published in 2000, found that men with HIV progressed to AIDS faster if they had chronic stress in their lives. For each increased stressful event, the risk for AIDS progression doubled in these patients.

Other. Other studies have linked chronic stress with tuberculosis, herpes simplex virus reactivation, shingles, ulcers (caused by infectious Helicobacter pylori bacteria) and other infectious diseases. Some studies of vaccinations have shown a decrease in effectiveness in individuals with high chronic stress.

How can you reduce the risk for infections during times of stress?

There are numerous strategies recommended for coping with stress, including “psychosocial interventions” that decrease a person’s own perception of stress and improves his or her social supports. Certain medications may also help in reducing stress caused by specific disorders. See your doctor if you need help in coping with stress.

How someone responds to stress varies from person-to-person. It is important to remember, though, that there are many factors involved in getting an infectious disease. For example, individuals differ in how they respond to stressful events; many people deal with stress by engaging in poor health behaviors, such as smoking, drinking or excessive eating — all of which will contribute to their chances of getting infections. And in some cases, these poor health behaviors contribute to worse stress, resulting in a continuous cycle of poor health and stress.

Sources:

Schneiderman N, et al. Stress and Health: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants. Annual Reviews in Clinical Psychology. 2005; 1:607.

Cohen S, et al. Psychological stress and susceptibility to the common cold. New England Journal of Medicine. 1991; 325:606.

Cohen S, et al. Types of stressors that increase susceptibility to the common cold in healthy adults. Health Psychology. 1998; 17:214.

Leserman J, et al. Impact of stressful life events, depression, social support, coping, and cortisol on progression to AIDS. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2000; 157:1221.

 

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