Chronic psychological stress has long been known or suspected to be a factor in almost every disease imaginable – from depression to autoimmune diseases, diabetes, infectious diseases, cardiovascular disease and cancer (see my column #44 Jan. 4, 2010) but no one knew exactly how. The effects of stress were usually attributed to dysfunction of the hypothalamic, pituitary and adrenal glands, but the specific hormonal changes causing disease were not known. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last April suggests a likely model.
The study took 276 healthy adults, measured the levels of stress they had been exposed to, tested them for glucocorticoid receptor resistance (GCR), and then exposed them to a rhinovirus and recorded cold symptoms over 5 days. Those with recent stressful experiences showed GCR and also experienced the most cold symptoms. The study also found that subjects with GCR produced the most proinflammatory cytokines in response to the rhinovirus infection.
The significance of GCR is that it prevents the neurotransmitter cortisol (the “fight or flight” hormone) from carrying out its other role of controlling inflammation. A rhinovirus was used in the study because the symptoms of a cold are caused by the body’s inflammatory response to the virus, not by the virus itself. This effect was further shown by measuring the production of cytokines –chemical messengers that promote inflammation.
In summary, it has now been shown that chronic stress interferes with cortisol’s role in controlling inflammation. Runaway inflammation is then responsible for the development and progression of the many different diseases associated with stress.
Sources: Cohen S, et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2012 Apr 17; 109(16):5995-9; “How Stress Influences Disease: Study Reveals Inflammation as the Culprit” Science Daily, Apr 2, 2012
For more information on this or other natural health topics, stop in and talk to Stan; for medical advice consult your licensed health practitioner.