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How often do you hear someone say they are “stressed out”? You may be surprised to find that some stress is actually good for your immune system. New research uncovers the good and the bad of stress and how it affects you.
According to recent research, your immune system actually can benefit from short spurts of stress. A new study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin found that the type of stress you experience when you take a test could be beneficial to you. The researchers, Dr. Suzanne Segerstrom and Dr. Gregory Miller found that this type of short-term stress is good for you whereas long-term continual stress is not. The two researchers evaluated 300 scientific papers that involved around 19,000 participants.

Good Stress, Bad Stress

Most stresses elicit the ‘fight or flight’ response in people. It is speculated that this is an instinct that we have from the cave man days. When humans were threatened by predators, they either ran or fought. This response mechanism is alive and well today and it boosts our natural front-line defense against trauma and infection from bites, scrapes, and other injuries. Long-term stress, however is said to be bad for your immune system and overall health.

This is the type of stress you are under when you care for an elderly person, lose a spouse or life-partner, have a serious disability, or undergo a lengthy court battle. The ill and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of the bad stress, that that is continual.

Another study by Dr. Shelley Taylor of the University of California shed some light on the stress response factor and why stress leads to a ramped up immune system. It is not clear how stress makes you ill, but the items of the immune system that are activated when there is inflammation are also activated with stress. This study’s purpose was to determine whether or not the stress of personal conflicts and competitive sports would trigger the release of cytokines, the molecules that are associated with inflammation.

There were 122 young adults who participated in the study and they kept diaries about their activities over an eight day time span. They focused on their interactions with others and whether these were negative or positive experiences. The participants were given tests in a laboratory setting where saliva samples were taken before and after these tests to measure biological markers for inflammation and release of cytokines. When the participants had negative interactions, they also had an increase in cytokine levels. This followed arguments and other uncomfortable interactions with others. Surprisingly, competitive sporting events did not have this effect.

The researchers concluded that low-grade inflammation in the body will contribute to the buildup of plaque in the vessels and also contributes to disorders that are linked to a poor immune system, like asthma. So there you have it, stress is good for immune system stimulation but bad for overall health.