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Chronic Stress Beats Down Immune System

Study finds it can make you vulnerable to illness

MONDAY, Nov. 4, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Chronic stress isn't just a burden on your mind, it can interfere with the normal function of your body's immune system.

So claims a study in the November issue of Health Psychology.

That impairment not only makes you more vulnerable to catching illnesses, it can make you more susceptible to such inflammatory diseases as allergic, autoimmune or cardiovascular diseases, the study says.

That's because chronic stress can hinder the immune system's ability to respond to its own anti-inflammatory signals triggered by glucocorticoid hormones. That can alter the course of an inflammatory disease.

Those glucocorticoid hormones normally stop an inflammatory response after a person has an infection or injury.

The study included 25 healthy parents with children receiving treatment for pediatric cancer and 25 healthy parents with healthy children.

Parents of children with cancer reported more psychological distress and were found to have lower glucocorticoid sensitivity compared to parents of healthy children.

The findings suggest that psychological stress may influence the onset and/or progression of conditions that involve excessive inflammation, says study author Gregory E. Miller of Washington University.

However, while the parents of children with cancer reported more symptoms of depression, the study found depression doesn't seem to be a factor in lower glucocorticoid sensitivity.

Miller says anxiety, intrusive thoughts, feelings of helplessness, or lack of sleep may be influencing the stress-related reductions in glucocorticoid sensitivity found in the parents of children with cancer.

The study also found that social support reduced the immunologic impact in parents of children with cancer. Such social support helps those parents deal with economic, work and family disruptions.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has advice on how to handle stress.

SOURCE: American Psychological Association, news release, Nov. 3, 2002
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