Although I would never have admitted it, in early 1990 in the lead-up to becoming seriously ill, I was chronically stressed. When your fear, fight and flight mechanism is continuously activated, things can start to go wrong quite rapidly. A lot of this is actually as a result of inflammation, and during chronic psychological stress it has been found that the body loses its ability to regulate the inflammatory response. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, research at Carnegie Mellon University shows that the effects of psychological stress on the body’s ability to regulate inflammation can promote the development and progression of disease.
The inflammatory response is partly regulated by the hormone cortisol, and when cortisol is not allowed to serve this function, inflammation can become out of control. Prolonged stress decreases tissue sensitivity to cortisol, which allows inflammatory processes to escalate. Specifically, immune cells become insensitive to cortisol’s regulatory effect. In turn, runaway inflammation is thought to promote the development and progression of many diseases.
Research indicates that experiencing a prolonged stressful event prevents immune cells from responding to hormonal signals which normally regulate inflammation. In turn, those with the inability to regulate the inflammatory response are more likely to develop colds when exposed to the virus which causes the common cold. Additionally, people who are less able to regulate their inflammatory response produce more pro-inflammatory cytokines, the chemical messengers which trigger inflammation, upon exposure to viruses such as the common cold. Since inflammation plays a role in a wide range of diseases such as cardiovascular problems, asthma and autoimmune disorders, research such as this suggests why stress can have an impact.
In addition to high levels of cortisol wreaking havoc with the immune system, chronic stress leads to elevated levels of adrenaline. Both of these hormones have an inhibitory effect on an important enzyme called delta 6 desaturase, which you’ll learn more about in chapter 5 of my forthcoming book, where I explain the importance of essential fats.
Great ways of reducing stress include exercise, spending quality time with friends, having a massage or just taking time out for yourself in nature. Get someone to give you a hug too, because hugs increase the secretion of oxytocin, a hormone which instantly calms the nervous system and makes you feel a whole lot better, fast. You can read more stress-busting tips and find out about other benefits of oxytocin in my 2014 book The Whole Body Solution.