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Stress and Its Effect on the Immune System

The Brain's Response to Acute Stress

In response to a stressor, a part of the brain called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system is activated.

HPA system: when the hypothalamus experiences the stressor signal, it simultaneously activates the two major stress pathways: the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system. At the same time, the pituitary gland is stimulated, which in turn orders the release of several chemical hormones.

The HPA systems trigger the production and release of steroid hormones ( glucocorticoids), including the primary stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is very important in marshaling systems throughout the body (including the heart, lungs, circulation, metabolism, immune systems, and skin) to deal quickly with the stress, it provides the fuel for the "fight or flight" response by increasing blood sugar so that there is energy for action..

The HPA system also releases certain neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) called catecholamines, particularly those known as known as dopamine, norepinephrine, aldosterone (increases the blood pressure) and epinephrine (also called adrenaline) along with thyroxine.

  • Catecholamines activate an area inside the brain called the amygdala, which apparently triggers an emotional response to a stressful event. 

  • Neurotransmitters then signal the hippocampus (a nearby area in the brain) to store the emotionally loaded experience in long-term memory. In primitive times, this combination of responses would have been essential for survival, when long-lasting memories of dangerous stimuli would be critical for avoiding such threats in the future.

  • During a stressful event, catecholamines also suppress activity in areas at the front of the brain concerned with short-term memory, concentration, inhibition, and rational thought. This sequence of mental events allows a person to react quickly to the stressor either to fight or to flee from it. (It also hinders the ability to handle complex social or intellectual tasks and behaviors.)

Response by the Heart, Lungs, and Circulation to Acute Stress

As the stress becomes stronger (imagine you are standing in the middle of a street and a fast driving car is approaching), the heart rate and blood pressure increase instantaneously.

  • Breathing becomes rapid and the lungs take in more oxygen.

  • Blood flow may actually increase 300% to 400%, priming the muscles, lungs, and brain for added demands.

  • The spleen discharges red and white blood cells, allowing the blood to transport more oxygen.

The Immune System's Response to Acute Stress

The effect on the immune system from confrontation with the car is similar to marshaling a defensive line of soldiers to potentially critical areas.

  • The steroid hormones dampen parts of the immune system, so that infection fighters (including important white blood cells) or other immune molecules can be redistributed.

  • These immune-boosting troops are sent to the body's front lines where injury or infection is most likely, such as the skin, the bone marrow, and the lymph nodes.

This whole process is called: General Adaptation Syndrome

This is also called "Positive Stress" as short-term stressors boost the immune system. It seems that the "fight or flight" response prompts the immune system to ready itself for infections resulting from bites, punctures, scrapes or other challenges to the integrity of the body.

The Body's Response to Chronic Stress

Chronic, long-term stress suppresses the immune system. The physical problems related to chronic stress include the lowering of the immune response, chronic muscle tension, and increased blood pressure. These problems can eventually lead to serious life-threatening illnesses such as heart attacks, kidney disease, and cancer. Holmes and Rahe and others have found that individuals who have undergone several stressful life events over a year's time have a much higher probability of developing these types of serious illness, within a few years of the events, than non-stressed individuals. During the middle 1970s, research by Mason et al. And Lazarus demonstrated that vast individual differences exist in how individuals respond to stress-producing stimuli.

  • The longer the stress, the more the immune system shifted from the adaptive changes seen in the "fight or flight" response to more negative changes, first at the cellular level and later in broader immune function. The most chronic stressors – stress that seems beyond a person's control or seems endless – resulted in the most global suppression of immunity. Almost all measures of immune system function dropped across the board.

  • The immune systems of those already sick are more subject to stress-related changes.

In reaching these conclusions researches had to look at the effects of the various stressors on different immune responses, such as “natural” and “specific” immunity. Researchers summarized the results of the studies that looked at each of these types of stress:
Natural immunity produces quick-acting, all-purpose cells that can attack many pathogens; they bring fever and inflammation.

The body takes a few days to mount a more specific attack on particular invaders with specific immunity. This response includes lymphocytes (T-cells and B cells). Specific immunity has both cellular responses, which fight pathogens that get inside cells (such as viruses), and humoral responses, which fight pathogens that stay outside cells, such as bacteria and parasites. Segerstrom and Miller were able to assess how different types of immune response correlated with different types of stress because researchers have identified the blood markers of these different immune responses.

It was also found that age and disease status affected a person's vulnerability to stress-related decreases in immune function. It seems that illness and age make it harder for the body to regulate itself.

Some health problems in detail that may be caused by stress:

Susceptibility to Infections

Chronic stress appears to blunt the immune response and increase the risk for infections and may even impair a person's response to immunizations. A number of studies have shown that subjects under chronic stress have low white blood cell counts and are vulnerable to colds. And once any person catches a cold or flu, stress can exacerbate symptoms. People who harbor herpes or HIV viruses may be more susceptible to viral activation following exposure to stress. Even more serious, some research has found that HIV-infected men with high stress levels progress more rapidly to AIDS when compared to those with lower stress levels. (In some studies, stressful events most linked with a higher incidence of infections were interpersonal conflicts, such as those at work or in a marriage.)

Immune Disorders

The contradictory effects of stress on the immune system can have mixed effects on autoimmune diseases (which are those that are caused by inflammation and damage from immune attacks on the body). For example, eczema, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis may demonstrate changes ranging from improvement to deterioration in response to stress. A 2001 study reported that short-term stress appears to have no negative effect on multiple sclerosis, but chronic stress is a major risk factor for flare-ups.

Known Diseases Caused by Chronic Stress

  • diarrhea

  • nausea

  • indigestion

  • sphincter of Oddi spasms

  • spastic colon

  • irritable bowel syndrome

  • constipation

  • high blood pressure

  • heart disease

  • hyperventilation

  • asthma

  • headaches

  • migraines

  • colds and sinus infections

  • vaginal yeast infection

  • bladder infections

  • fiber myalgia

  • arthritis

A major component in the functions of the immune system is the adrenaline gland. Bear with me, we are coming closer to the answer of your question: "what has this all to do with headshaking?" Next page

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References:
Depression & Schmerz, Walter E. Müller, Stephan Volk, 2003 Lingua Med;
Stress-Management. Das WAAGE-Programm, Stollreiter u.a.,  Beltz Verlag 2000;
Stress Echocardiography, Eugenio Picano, 2003 Springer
Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry Psychological Bulletin, 130, 4., Segerstrom, 2004, Miller

 

 

 

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