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Short term Stress May Have Health Benefits

stress, stress management, immunity, immune system

Long-term chronic stress, lasting weeks or months, is known to have adverse health effects, but if there is an event that triggers the stress response system for a short period of time, it might not be such a bad thing.

Stanford University School of Medicine scientists studied the “fight or flight” response in laboratory rats. Also known as the acute stress response, this process triggers a cascade of hormones that help the body prepare for a threat or a perceived threat. It is an instinct that every animal – including humans – possesses.

Firdaus Dhabhar PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and colleagues subjected rats to mild stress by gently confining them in a transparent Plexiglas enclosure with full ventilation. Blood was drawn several times over a two-hour period in order to measure levels of norepinephrine, epinephrine, and corticosterone (stress hormones), as well as other immune-system markers.

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The team found that the stress hormones were released in stages which ultimately helped strengthen the immune system by mobilizing cells such as monocytes, neutrophils, and lymphocytes. Immune activity continued in other body destinations including the skin and other tissues. Dhabhar explains that this enhances recovery from wounds, whether from trauma or surgery, and helps fight infectious bacteria.

"You don't want to keep your immune system on high alert at all times," Dhabhar said. "So nature uses the brain, the organ most capable of detecting an approaching challenge, to signal … to the rest of the body by directing the release of stress hormones. The stress hormones not only energize the animals' bodies -- they can run faster, jump higher, bite harder -- but, it turns out, also mobilize the immune troops to prepare for looming trouble.”

The study was published in the June issue of Journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology.

The moral of the story is not to stress about a little stress. As with everything else in life, moderation is key. Acute, short-term stress has its benefits; however, keep in mind that long term, chronic stress can aggravate health conditions such as heart disease, depression, and gastrointestinal disorders, nullifying its immune system benefits.

Reference: Stanford School of Medicine