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Can stress really make you sicker?

Updated on April 6, 2012

A link between stress and severity of disease has been suspected for a long time. However, this has not really been proved until now.

Many, if not most. clinical studies are carried out by drug manufacturers or those groups with an interest in backing up their own theories for profit. However, a study regarding the effect of stress on disease was recently reported from a collaboration of funding between The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institute of Mental Health, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health.

How did they test this?

Well, the scientists used the common cold virus as a means of testing how sick people became.

They tested effects in two ways. One study involved a psychological assessment of the amount of prolonged stress people had been through, prior to giving them each the same dose of cold virus. Another study tested their immune response prior to dosing with virus, to demonstrate that their response was directly related to how sick they became.

This virus was chosen because the symptoms of the disease are not as a direct result of virus activity, but instead are our body's reaction to it.

It turned out that the more stressed the body is, the less controlled the immune response is and the sicker we become. The intensity of the symptoms that we experience is not related to the amount of virus we have in our bodies, but can be associated with the amount of psychological stress we have been exposed to during the time prior to our disease.

This explains why some people have colds all the time and others rarely do. There doesn't need to be any difference in exposure, but there is a difference in our body's reaction.

Why does this happen?

You may have heard of a hormone called cortisol, which is produced in stressful situations, to protect us.

This hormone partly regulates inflammation in the body but when the body is under prolonged stress it is not able to function properly. The results of this a a progression of disease in the body because our immune cells become insensitive to the hormone and get out of control.

This effect not only relates to the common cold. There are many disease that are related to an inability to regulate immune function. Some examples include: cardiovascular disease, asthma and autoimmune disorders.


What can we do to reduce the effects of stress in our lives?

There are many ways we can help to reduce the affects of stress on our psychological health:

  • Relaxation techniques
  • Massage
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Energy psychology (e.g. EFT)
  • Counseling

Other ways to protect ourselves

There are also other ways to support our bodies in the regulation of our stress responses.

  • Healthy eating
  • Exercise
  • Outdoor activities

With a balanced lifestyle we don't need to "expect" to be sick or accumulate disease as we age. It's good to know that we actually have more choices than we think when it comes to our health.


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    • catsimmons profile image

      Catherine Simmons 5 years ago from Mission BC Canada

      Another good reason to use stress reduction techniques.

      Thanks for that Larry!

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California

      Voted up. High levels of cortisol also decrease insulin receptor sensitivity. Frank diabetics who under a lot of emotional stress need higher doses of insulin, and that exacerbates the complications of their disease.