How Stress Can Make You Sick
When the doctor at the walk-in clinic asked me about my cholesterol, I brushed it off as usual.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“How do you know?”
I told him I’d always been within the normal range for everything – cholesterol, blood pressure, kidney function, blood sugar. I’m a healthy person. I exercise regularly, eat little red meat, and am what I consider a moderate drinker. I always take the stairs, and have never been overweight. A picture of health, that’s me. Or so I thought.
After checking my blood pressure (which was up slightly) and listening to my heart, he asked me, “When’s the last time you had your bloodwork done?”
“Two years ago,” I said. “Everything was fine.”
“I’m going to order some blood tests,” he said. “Let’s see how healthy you are.”
The results, to me, were shocking. Several results were flagged: I was at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes; my creatinine levels indicated possible kidney disorder, and my LDL (“bad”) cholesterol was in the high-risk range. Everything, it seemed, had spiked in the last two years.
How was this possible? Nothing had changed in that time, in terms of my diet and fitness routine. There was, however, one major factor affecting my health – stress. Five years earlier my husband was diagnosed with a terminal, incurable heart condition. For four years I was his caregiver. The last year of his life (he died in September 2016) was a nightmare, to say the least. As he became more and more frail, he required round-the-clock care. We had home care nurses arriving on a daily basis, and a great deal of family support. But the main point person for all of this was me. I cared for the man I loved and I don’t regret a minute of it. But it took its toll.
A recent study provides some insight into how stress can make us sick. Co-author Adam Moeser, of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University, and his colleagues investigated the effects of stress on mast cells, the white blood cells that play an important role in, among other things, keeping your immune system healthy.
Previous research has shown that the activity of mast cells heightens in response to psychological stress, and this can cause illness. In studying the underlying factors for this activity, the Michigan State researchers found that a protein known as corticotropin-releasing factor receptor subtype 1 (CRF1) responds to stress by sending signals to specific immune cells. This causes immune cells to release chemical substances that can trigger a host of diseases, including asthma, lupus, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Mice with normal CRF1 receptors on their mast cells experienced an increase in histamine levels in response to stress conditions, and this led to disease. Mice that lacked CRF1 receptors saw a 54% decrease in disease in response to allergic stress, and a 63% decline in disease in response to psychological stress.
According to Moeser, these findings show “that CRF1 is critically involved in some diseases initiated by these stressors. This work is a critical step forward in decoding how stress makes us sick and provides a new target pathway in the mast cell for therapies to improve the quality of life of people suffering from common stress-related diseases.”
One more proof, if we need it, of the mind-body connection.
You can read more about the Michigan State University study here: