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Stress Can Stress Out The Immune System

E-Newsletter No. 19

Stressed? Wounded? Feeling trapped like a rodent in a test tube, at the mercy of some mysterious experiment?

In these times of anthrax-contaminated envelopes, leave it to science to provide a dark analogy for our troubles. A recent issue of the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity features research on stress and wound healing. The studies remind us that such depredations are not new to U.S. mice: Researchers “stressed” the rodents by putting them in tubes immobilized for 15 hours a day without food or drink; cut the animals; then infected the wounds with the bacteria that causes strep throat.

Doctors have known for some time that various kinds of stress, including chronic pain, can alter the speed and strength of immune response, likely delaying the healing of wounds. And, sure enough, compared with a group of mice that was wounded while roaming “free” in cages, the poor, unfed, confined mice suffered longer and more severely from the infection.

All the more reason during this real-life stress to eat, drink, and get out of our cages and give thanks we’re not lab mice.

Ascorbate In Stress

Various kind of stress have been described as conditions under which increased vitamin C intake is required to maintain the normal plasma level. The increase ascorbate demand is presumably caused by oxidative effects through free radical scavenging. Chronic oxidative stress and a consequent relative shortage of ascorbate is present in HIV infection, in inflammatory bowel diseases, in endotoxemia, in diabetic mellitus, myocardial infarct, trauma, bacterial as well as other viral infections, depression, and even after heavy exercise.

Stress, Stressors and the Neuroendocrine Integration of the Adaptive Response.


Despite marked advances in stress research, confusion as to what stress is continues to exist. Thus, it may be of benefit to briefly mention the definitions of four key concepts related to stress: those of homeostasis, stressor, stress, and adaptive response. Life exists by maintaining a complex dynamic equilibrium or homeostasis, that is constantly challenged by intrinsic or extrinsic adverse forces or stressors. Stress is, thus, defined as a state of threatened homeostasis, which is reestablished by a complex repertoire of physiological and behavioral adaptive responses of the organism.

The adaptive responses may be inadequate for the reestablishment of homeostasis, or excessive and prolonged. In either case, a healthy state is not attained, and pathology (disease-states) may ensue. With these straightforward definitions, the frequently interchangeable use of the terms stress, stressor, and adaptive response will hopefully be avoided.

Stress Syndrome

The stress response is subserved by the stress system located in both the central nervous system (CNS) and the periphery. This system receives and integrates a great diversity of neurosensory (higher cortical, emotional, visual, auditory, taste, sensations of light touch, pressure, vibration and pain, adrenal, cardiovascular, gastric, intestinal and genitourinary neuroendocrine peptides) and blood-borne signals (blood composition signals, hormones, inflammatory chemical signals) that arrive through distinct pathways. Activation of the stress system lead to a cluster of time-limited behavioral and physical changes that are remarkably consistent in their qualitative presentation and collectively called the general adaptation or stress response syndrome. These changes are normally adaptive and improve the chances of the individual for survival. Components of the stress syndrome are stimulated in a stressor-specific fashion. However, as the potency of the stressor increases, the specificity of the response decreases to eventually produce the relatively “nonspecific” stress syndrome.

Often stress is of a magnitude and nature that allows a perception of control by the individual. As such, stress can be pleasant and rewarding. The seeking of novelty stress by an individual is related to the above phenomenon and is pivotal for emotional growth and development. It is of note that activation of the stress system occurs during both feeding and sexual activity, quintessential functions for survival of self and species.

Brain Oxidative Damage Following Acute Immobilization and Mild Emotional Stress.

A growing body of evidence shows that psychological stress leads to increased oxidant production and oxidative damage to molecular components of brain cells such as intracellular proteins, lipids and DNA. Stressful events increase the release of cortisol produced in the adrenal glands which results in a toxic overload in the brain’s neuroendocrine system.

Aging, Dementia, and the Stress Control System

The idea that a relationship exists between emotional stress and aging is not new. Psychological stress is associated with the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) of the neuroendocrine system, and similar effects are noted in aging rats, in which there is a tendency for HPA activity to increase. Striking similarities in the pattern of neuronal loss in the hippocampus have been observed both in aged rats and those exposed to prolonged and elevated levels of cortisol. So, emotional stress may be a senescence-accelerating factor in the aging process.

There are studies that link a large range of harmful effects including neuro-psychiatric diseases to prolonged periods of stress. Both Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and depression are associated with functional abnormalities of the HPA axis. Secretion of cortisol is the final state in a neuroendocrine cascade that begins with the perception of a stressful stimulus.

Different types of stress (immobilization, psychological, noise-induced, repeated cold stress, sleep deprivation, etc…) cause elevated levels of oxidative cellular products in the brain.

In young adult humans, sleep affects the regulation of growth hormone (GH) and cortisol. The mean percentage of deep slow-wave (restful) sleep decreases from early adulthood (age 15-25 years) to during midlife (age 35-50 years). The transition from midlife to late life (age 71 to 83 years) involved no further significant decrease in slow wave sleep, but an increase in time awake of 28 minutes per decade. The decline in slow wave sleep for early adulthood to midlife is parallel by major decline in GH secretion. Increasing age is also associated with an elevation of evening cortisol levels.

The evidence suggests a possible link between the intensity of the stress response, the rate of age-dependent neurodegeneration and the individual’s life expectancy. It would appear that stress can stimulate numerous pathways leading to increased production of oxidants. Moreover, over-stimulation of the neuroendocrine system could lead to exhaustion of cellular antioxidant defenses increasing brain sensitivity to cytotoxic events. Further research will eventually firm up these conclusions about neurodegenerative events, aging and their relationship to emotional stress.

Foods Rich in Protein, Vitamins Fight Stress

When confronted with stress, whether physical or emotional, the body reacts in an ancient and time-honored way---by pumping out adrenaline, a hormone that triggers a cascade of hormonal and nervous responses preparing us for “flight or fight.”

Within less than a second of its release, adrenaline increases the heart rate, causes blood to be diverted to muscles and thickens the blood in anticipation of repairing wounds.

This physical response can obviously be very useful. But the stress currently experienced throughout the country requires no rapid physical action. When stress is chronic, levels of adrenaline remain usually high, therefore increasing the body’s need for certain nutrients.

Simply synthesizing or absorbing the increased adrenaline requires extra vitamin C. Although most animals can increase their own synthesis of this vitamin (goats and guinea pigs can step up vitamin C production by 500%), humans have lost this ability and must rely entirely on dietary sources. Oranges, kiwi fruit, berries and papaya, plus peppers and broccoli, all burst with this vitamin. You should include them, or similar fruits and vegetables, on your daily menu, making a concerted attempt to have at least five servings a day.

If your vitamin C intake is low, the immune system is left wanting, diminishing the activity of macrophages, immune cells that literally eat invading bacteria and viruses. Remember, Vitamin C is immediately oxidized upon exposure to light, air, or metal. The Vitamin C content in juice is gone within 60 seconds. Juice is therefore only a high sugar liquid that actually increases oxidation, and is the chief cause of things like arthritis, cataracts, and wrinkles!

You should also regularly consume foods rich in vitamin A, folic acid and zinc. Vitamin A is found in carrots, sweet potatoes and orange and green vegetables; folic acid in black-eyed peas, spinach, kale and enriched breads and cereals; and zinc in oysters, crab, wheat germ, liver, pumpkin seeds and red meat.

In addition to the above recommendations, the best prevention practice is to take high level of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals in divided doses two or more times daily. The Anti-Aging Kit: Perfect Balance Formula, Perfect Body Formula, Perfect Mind I and II Formulas is specifically designed by Dr. Lee-Benner, and is recommended to be taken on a daily basis for optimum benefit, in addition to a healthy diet (please click on Turning Back the Aging Clock to find out more about this subject). To order: please click on Nutritional Supplement Order Form on this website.

A body under stress needs all these nutrients in greater amounts than usual because the nervous system is using more of them, creating a general drain on the body. When this happens, the action of other immune system cells might be reduced.

These cells, called B-cells, make antibodies designed to fight off invading bacterial infections.

Keeping protein intake up is also important. Because the liver, kidneys, lungs and organs are working in full tilt, protein needs can increase by 60%. With the body furiously trying to generate itself during this time of metabolic stress, be sure to include foods like fish, chicken, turkey, lean red meats, eggs, milk, soy and other beans at each meal. Oily fish like salmon, trout, tuna, and sardines make particularly good protein choices because they also supply essential fats capable of thinning blood, possibly counteracting the blood-thickening properties of adrenaline.

Eating to beat stress is not just about adding certain foods. It is also wise to limit those containing stimulants such as caffeine and guarana, which strain a nervous system already on red alert.

And go carefully on the alcohol. Even moderate amounts reduce levels of folic acid and other nutrients that boost the immune system.

The Science of Optimism and Hope

I want to suggest to you that there is a set of human strengths that are the great buffers against the despondency of old-age: optimism, hope, courage, interpersonal skill, loving-kindness, work ethic, responsibility, faith, future-mindedness, honesty, and perseverance; just to name a few. I want to suggest to you that the positive psychology, the positive social science that I envision for the twenty first century, will therefore have the useful side effect of the prevention of much age-associated despair. But, more importantly, it will have the direct effect of creating a scientific understanding and a profession concerned with the practice of civic virtue and the pursuit of the best things in life.

A unique, universal, self-study spiritual thought system that also teaches the way to Love and Inner Peace is A COURSE IN MIRACLES. To access first-hand information about the Course, log onto  I strongly recommend it!

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