Stressful situations making you sick?

stressIf positive thoughts can lead to pleasure sensations and feelings of well being, is it possible that negative thoughts that characterize stressful situations can make you sick? That’s just what the husband and wife team of Drs. Ron and Jan Glaser at Ohio State University have been trying to find out for a couple of decades. And their research in psychoneuroimmunology, the study of the relationship between body and mind, has yielded some fascinating results. Disturbing ones.

Back in the 1990s the Glasers decided to investigate how stress affects the body’s response to physical injury. They selected a group of caregivers who looked after a parent or spouse suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. As a control group, they enlisted subjects who were matched in age and socio-economic status with the caregivers but had relatively stress free lives. Then, using a biopsy punch instrument, a minor skin wound was inflicted on the arm of all participants with the aim of studying any difference in healing rate between the stressed and unstressed subjects. Indeed, the wounds took about nine days longer to heal in the stressed caregivers. Different types of stress led to the same result. When healing times from puncture wounds for students on a stress-free summer vacation were compared with their healing times three days before a final exam, the results were the same as for the Alzheimer’s care givers. Stress increased the time needed to heal.

The Glasers went on to extend their research to the effects of marital strife. They enlisted 42 married couples of all ages to spend two days in a hospital where their blood could be drawn at intervals. Using a vacuum pump, blisters were raised on each subject’s arm, again the aim being to measure healing times under different situations. During the first hospital stay the couples were asked to engage in general conversation, while during the second they were instructed to try to resolve some of their marital conflicts. The healing of the blisters was slower after the conflict session, and the rate was actually proportional to the degree of hostility that had been expressed. Couples who got really angry with each other had their blisters heal at 60% of the rate seen for the low hostility couples.

How can this be explained in terms of body chemistry? A clue comes from the blood drawn from the subjects in this experiment. Cytokines, which are proteins that play an important part in wound healing, were found in higher concentrations in the wound area when hostility levels were low. On the other hand, cytokine levels in the blood were higher when hostility levels were up. And this is not a good thing. Around a wound, cytokines help healing through their inflammatory properties which destroy microbial invaders, but when they circulate in the blood, their inflammatory properties can increase the risk of heart disease. Care giving may be an unavoidable stress in our lives, but arguing with a spouse is avoidable. And avoiding it may help you live longer. Unless the pent-up anger gets you first.

Joe Schwarcz

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