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Surprising Science

Can Stress Boost the Immune System?

Stress has always had a bad rap because of its effect on a person's health, but according to a recent study stress isn't so bad at all. Scientists explain how stress can actually boost the immune system. 

Article written by guest writer Rin Mitchell

What’s the Latest Development?

Based on a recent study led by a Stanford University School of Medicine scientist, stress is good for boosting immunity. The discovery came from tests on laboratory rats that were induced to mild-stress conditions through confinement in transparent Plexiglas enclosures. Then the blood was taken from the rats by scientists. Levels of three major hormones: norepinephrine, epinephrine and  corticosterone (“a rat analog of cortisol in humans”), as well as “several distinct immune-cell types” in the blood were measured. Scientists determined that natural movements in the mind that triggered “fight-or-flight” stress were in response to the three hormones, and the overall effect is “to bolster immune readiness.” One example given is that of an Impala who is about to be attacked by a lion lurking in the grass, it is the brain that is aware of what is about to happen, not the immune systemit benefits lion and impala alike when pathogen-fighting immune cells are in positions of readiness in such places as the skin and mucous membranes, which are at high risk for damage and consequent infection.” These findings relate only to periods of short-term stressas scientists note stress that lasts over a longer period of time is bad for health and can suppress the immune system. 

What’s the Big Idea? 

Short-term stress can be good for the immune system. Three major hormones are the key to inducing the movement in the brain that sets off a type of stress scientists identify as “fight-or-flight.” It is not good for the immune system to be on high alert all the time, so naturally the brain works to detect any challenges and “signal that detection to the rest of the body by directing the release of stress hormones.” This kind of stress can bolster one’s immunity, but if the stress is long-term it can do the opposite. Scientists believe this discovery could possibly lead to medical applications such as “administering low doses of stress hormones or drugs that mimic or antagonize them in order to optimize a patient’s immune readiness for procedures such as surgery or vaccination.” Researchers will need to conduct more studies, including human subjects. 


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