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Stress and Our Immune System

12 APRIL 2022

When our immune systems can’t control inflammation, our bodies suffer organ and tissue damage. Research* demonstrates that social stress can weaken the immune system. So how important is it to read the influence of emotions or social stress in the pulses? It’s important, and it’s important to read the depth of the emotional influence because that will help you determine the chronicity of the stress and its effect. 

There was a socially stressed group and a physically stressed group. Both groups were exposed to an infectious bacteria. The socially stressed group was twice as likely to die as was the physically stressed group. The social stress triggered an abnormal immune response to the bacterial toxin. It triggered an over-response of LPS (lipopolysaccharide) that stimulates immune cells. In the mice, too much LPS caused the over-production of pro-inflammatory hormones (cytokines). This sudden increase in cytokines caused the mice to go into toxic shock. The physically stressed mice didn’t have the same level of inflammation so didn’t go into toxic shock. 

Cytokines are important cells to help the body kill bacteria. However, an over production of them that happens too quickly, can lead to toxic shock. Within 48 hours of exposure to the bacteria, 75% of the socially stressed mice had developed toxic shock and died; only 35% of the physically stressed mice suffered the same fate. 

Autopsies showed that all of the mice had some inflammation in their spleens but the socially stressed group had damage from inflammation in other vital organs (brain, lungs, liver, spleen). The researchers concluded that the immune systems of the socially stressed mice had become resistant to their body’s anti-inflammatory mechanisms. In other words, their body couldn’t fight off inflammation despite the fact that their bodies were producing the proper hormones (glucocorticoids). The unchecked inflammation led to organ damage. 

Like all of our body’s systems, there is a balancing act when the immune system is called into action. You want inflammatory cells to kill an infection at the source but don’t want too many to go there. And social stress isn’t necessarily worse than physical stress but it is for some people. People with major depression and those infected with HIV have glucocorticoid resistance that, potentially, was caused by chronic social stress. While glucocorticoids are used to treat patients with inflammatory diseases like asthma, RA, and leukemia, patients who are resistant to those hormones don’t respond to treatment. 

The conclusion is that social stress can damage the immune system which may negatively affect organs and lead to illness. Stress affects everyone but not in the same manner; some people are more susceptible to it. For Chinese medicine practitioners, it is important to be able to feel the effects of social stress in the pulses so that we can determine the extent to which organ damage may occur. When emotional stress is felt at the adaptive level (deep) in the pulses, it is an indication of chronicity. It gives us the opportunity to explain to patients the importance of controlling social stress, of changing our reaction to it, and of acupuncture for restructuring their body’s response to stressors. 

*John Sheridan, Journal of Neuroimmunology