Given the lives that we lead, it’s next to impossible to avoid stress. And we all know that stress leads to all kinds of health problems. In fact, it has now come to the fore that common cold is one of the commonest problems associated with stress. Sheldon Cohen [the Robert E. Doherty Professor of Psychology in Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences], from the Carnegie Mellon University found that people suffering from psychological stress are more susceptible to developing common colds than those who don’t suffer from stress.
His work showed that with the common cold, symptoms are not caused by the virus—they are instead a “side effect” of the inflammatory response that is triggered as part of the body’s effort to fight infection. The greater the body’s inflammatory response to the virus, the greater is the likelihood of experiencing the symptoms of a cold.
Experiencing a prolonged stressful event was associated with the inability of immune cells to respond to hormonal signals that normally regulate inflammation. In turn, those with the inability to regulate the inflammatory response were more likely to develop colds when exposed to the virus.
In another study led by Cohen, which is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was found that chronic psychological stress is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response.
“Inflammation is partly regulated by the hormone cortisol and when cortisol is not allowed to serve this function, inflammation can get out of control,” said Cohen. Prolonged stress alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate the inflammatory response because it decreases tissue sensitivity to the hormone. 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.
“The immune system’s ability to regulate inflammation predicts who will develop a cold, but more importantly it provides an explanation of how stress can promote disease,” Cohen said. “When under stress, cells of the immune system are unable to respond to hormonal control, and consequently, produce levels of inflammation that promote disease. Because inflammation plays a role in many diseases such as cardiovascular, asthma and autoimmune disorders, this model suggests why stress impacts them as well.”
He added, “Knowing this is important for identifying which diseases may be influenced by stress and for preventing disease in chronically stressed people. Our advice: focus on managing your stress levels and look for ways to minimise it.