Calm down and take it easy. Exposure to chronic stress can – at least in mice –
make one more likely to develop autoimmune disease, in which the immune system
malfunctions and attacks tissues in the body itself.
The mechanisms that
bring this about were characterized for the first time recently by researchers
at Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and published in the European
Journal of Immunology.
Dr. Idan Harpaz and Prof. Alon Monsonego of BGU’s
Faculty of Health Sciences, in conjunction with Prof. Hagit Cohen, showed that
ongoing stress increases the susceptibility to an autoimmune disease similar to
The family of autoimmune diseases is very large and
ranges from alopecia areata (a kind of baldness), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
(Lou Gehrig’s disease) and celiac disease to type 1 diabetes, Grave’s disease
(of the thyroid), lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis and
The research showed that the phenomenon is caused,
among other things, by damage to the release of adequate levels of
glucocorticoids (steroid hormones termed cortisol in humans and corticosterone
in rodents) in response to stimulus – most likely due to a lack of sensitivity
to glucocorticosteroids in specific cells of the immune system. These cause
pathogenic inflammation, and the glucocorticoids cannot effectively inhibit the
cells that encourage inflammation, which is what generally happens.
researchers also found that exposure to high levels of glucocorticoids in those
suffering from chronic stress reduced the number of immune cells. This increased
the number of cells that encouraged pathogenic inflammation compared to those
that inhibit it. These mechanisms were found to appear more significantly in
females than in males and may explain, in part, the higher rates of autoimmune
disease in women than in men.
Exposure to stress is one of the most
common sources of damage to the body, both physically and emotionally. The
reaction to stress is characterized by the release of important hormones such as
glucocorticoids, which enable the organism to handle stressful situations (fight
or flight). The glucocorticosteroids are released following brain signaling to
the adrenal cortex, called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA)
At the same time, high levels of glucocorticoids in those suffering
from chronic stress harm the body’s immune system and its ability to adequately
cope with immune challenges essential to gain homeostasis.
the results of the current study suggest that while a high level of
glucocorticoids generally protects against the worsening of autoimmune diseases
in those exposed to chronic stress, steroids could lead to a worsening of their
Therefore, even though steroids is one of the treatments for
chronic inflammation, use of such a treatment – particularly in patients
suffering from chronic stress – should be carefully weighed and
The Beersheba researchers believe that testing the function
of the HPA axis can be an important diagnostic tool for determining how well the
immune system is functioning.
The researchers are also investigating the
effects of glucocorticoids in aging and agerelated neurodegenerative diseases,
such as Alzheimer’s, and report that there is apparently a connection between
the effects of glucocorticoids on the immune system and aging.