A study of parents with children being treated for cancer – reported in the 2002 November issue of the journal Health Psychology – suggests that chronic stress may hamper a naturally occurring anti-inflammatory response in the body.

To examine the mechanisms responsible for these effects, researchers have explored the relationship between psychological stress and the immune system, the body’s chief defense against many diseases. Numerous links between stress and the immune response have been identified in previous studies. In this study, the researchers examined the effects of stress hormones on white blood cells used by the body to fight infection.

Ordinarily, white blood cells will concentrate in the area of injury or infection where they release chemicals called cytokines to fend off the invaders, a process generally known as inflammation. While inflammation can help fight infection, too much inflammation occurring over time can actually be damaging. Under normal circumstances, the inflammation process is naturally stopped in the body when levels of a stress hormone, cortisol, begin to rise. It is harmful to the body when the inflammation process does not stop as it should.

In this report, fifty healthy adults were studied; half were parents of cancer patients, and half were parents of healthy children. Parents of cancer patients reported more psychological distress than parents of healthy children. They also had flatter diurnal slopes of cortisol secretion, primarily because of reduced output during the morning hours. There was also evidence that chronic stress impaired the immune system’s response to anti-inflammatory signals: The capacity of a synthetic glucocorticoid hormone to suppress in vitro production of the pro-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-6 was diminished among parents of cancer patients.

The researchers found that the white blood cells of stressed parents were less responsive to the hormone, and less likely to shut down an inflammatory response, than the less stressed parents. Their cells kept producing more cytokines.

The findings highlight the fact that stress may interfere with the body’s ability to shut down its own immune response after it gets started.

The study authors also hypothesized that social support would operate in a buffering fashion, and that their, “findings corroborate evidence suggesting that social support has the capacity to buffer people from the immunologic consequences of chronically stressful experience.”

Therefore, the bodies of those people suffering from stress may be less likely to regulate their normal defense mechanisms. Having a strong supportive network may help alleviate stress, thereby helping the body return to normal function.

First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 134 – November/December 2002
Health Psychology 2002;21:531-541