A new study provides a better understanding of why chronic stress leads to high levels of inflammation in the body.
Researchers found that chronic stress changes gene activity of immune cells before they enter the bloodstream so that they're ready to fight infection or trauma -- even when there is no infection or trauma to fight. This then leads to increased inflammation.
This phenomenon was seen in mice, as well as in blood samples from people with poor socioeconomic statuses (a predictor of chronic stress), reported the researchers from Ohio State University, the University of California, Los Angeles, Northwestern University and the University of British Columbia.
"There is a stress-induced alteration in the bone marrow in both our mouse model and in chronically stressed humans that selects for a cell that's going to be pro-inflammatory," study researcher John Sheridan, a professor at Ohio State University and associate director of the university's Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, said in a statement. "So what this suggests is that if you're working for a really bad boss over a long period of time, that experience may play out at the level of gene expression in your immune system."
Inflammation isn't always bad, particularly acute inflammation in response to an injury or infection. But chronic inflammation, on the other hand, has been linked with a range of conditions such as heart disease, depression and even cancer.
For the mouse part of this study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers induced chronic stress in mice by having a bunch of male mice live together for a certain period of time. This time was enough for the mice to establish a hierarchy. Then, they introduced an aggressive male mouse to this group for periods of two hours to induce chronic stress in the mice.
After that, researchers looked at the immune cells circulating in the stressed mice's blood stream, and found that they had four times the frequency of immune cells in their blood and spleen, versus non-stressed mice.
Researchers completed genome-wide analysis of the immune cells taken from the stressed mice's blood. They found that compared with the non-stressed mice, 3,000 genes in the stressed mice's immune cells were either expressed at higher or lower levels -- and 1,142 of the up-regulated genes played a role in making the immune cells become more inflammatory.
Similar results were found in humans. The University of California, Los Angeles researchers looked at blood samples from both the stressed mice, as well as humans who came from differing socioeconomic statuses. Just like in the mouse part of the experiment, 387 genes were identified that had differences in activity between the people who came from low socioeconomic backgrounds and those who came from high socioeconomic backgrounds. And just like in the mice, the up-regulated genes in those who came from low socioeconomic backgrounds were pro-inflammatory.
In addition, a third of the genes that seemed to be affected by chronic stress were the same in both the humans and mice.
"This study provides a nice mechanism for how psychology impacts biology," study researcher Nicole Powell, a research scientist in oral biology at Ohio State University, said in a statement. "Other studies have indicated that these cells are more inflammatory; our work shows that these cells are primed at the level of the gene, and it's directly due to the sympathetic nervous system."
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Weird And/Or Recurring Dreams
"Unfortunately, the stress we deal with during the day <a href="http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/5-most-common-stress-dreams">tends to follow us to bed at night and plays out in our dreams</a>," Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, author of <em>Dream On It -- Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life</em>, wrote for DoctorOz.com. Maybe you don't realize you're burning the candle at both ends until that dream comes back where you miss your bus or your house is on fire, two of the five most common stress dreams, according to Loewenberg. However, these dreams might help you pinpoint what exactly is stressing you out -- and can <a href="http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/health/stress-relief/stress-busters/signs-of-stress/?page=5">help you work through why you're feeling that way</a>, Fitness magazine reports.
That "I could use a massage" feeling isn't just about a brief oasis from the real (read: stressful) world. Turns out, <a href="http://www.womansday.com/health-fitness/stress-management/9-surprising-symptoms-of-stress-104938">stress causes us to tense our muscles</a> and can even trigger muscle spasms, leaving us in some serious pain, <em>Woman's Day</em> reported.
Speaking of spasms -- ever had a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/31/why-do-my-eyelids-twitch_n_1844041.html">funny eye twitch</a>? Stress could be to blame. While there's not exactly hard evidence to prove it, many people who complain of a twitch also say they're tired or stressed.
A number of people grind their teeth in their sleep -- or "chew over the day's stressors," Debbie Mandel, author of A<em>ddicted to Stress: A Woman’s 7-Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life</em>, told <em>Fitness</em>. Others may simply clench their jaw while awake and stressed, often without realizing it. But both can lead to pain -- and <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=5661148&page=1#.ULeQxdPjmD0">grinding can even crack teeth</a>. Your dentist can tell you if there's visible damage and set you up with a mouth guard to prevent further stress-induced wear and tear.
Changes In Your Menstrual Cycle
Women may experience late or missed periods due to stress. Some may even experience a condition know as <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/pms/managing-stress-during-pms.aspx">secondary amenorrhea</a>, when the cycle seems to completely stop, according to Everyday Health. Other stressed women may find their periods continue on a regular schedule -- but feel far worse. Stress can make <a href="http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/health/stress-relief/stress-busters/signs-of-stress/?page=4">cramps up to twice as painful</a>, according to <em>Fitness</em>.
Losing Hair Or Going Gray
You've probably heard someone say stress is turning them gray -- but it turns out we're <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/18/gray-hair-stress-beauty-myths_n_1885646.html">more likely to <em>lose</em> hair when stressed</a>, HuffPost Style reported. However, if you are already genetically predisposed to going gray, traumatic events and periods of intense stress could speed up the process. The Mayo Clinic explains that stress can cause white blood cells to <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-and-hair-loss/AN01442">attack the hair follicle</a> and stop growth, and it may also put hair follicles into a "resting phase," so hairs fall out during washing or combing. Others experience <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/31/trichotillomania-disorder-olivia-munn_n_1723757.html">trichotillomania</a> when stressed or anxious, which gives them an irresistible urge to pull out hair on the scalp or other areas, like eyebrows and eyelashes.
An Upset Stomach
Stress can mess with your stomach in ways as simple as a bout of the butterflies. But it can also cause more serious reactions, including <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001292/">irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS</a>. While the link between stress and gastro problems is not entirely understood, it seems to <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001292/">make the intestines more sensitive and contract more</a>, according to the A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.
Stress lowers our immune system, leaving us at risk for frequent colds. One study found that the people who reported high levels of stress were <a href="http://www.forbes.com/2010/05/17/stress-symptoms-health-forbes-woman-well-being-exercise_slide_3.html">twice as likely to catch a cold</a>. The stress hormone cortisol seems to turn down the volume on the body's inflammatory response, Health.com reported, to "free up energy" to fight off whatever the threat that's causing the stress. "Stressed people's immune cells become less sensitive to cortisol," Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., the study's author and a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, told Health.com. "They're unable to regulate the inflammatory response, and therefore, when they're exposed to a virus, they're more likely to develop a cold."