The research shows that chronic stress changes gene activity in immune cells before they reach the bloodstream. With these changes, the cells are primed to fight an infection or trauma that doesn’t actually exist, leading to an overabundance of the inflammation that is linked to many health problems.
This is not just any stress, but repeated stress that triggers the sympathetic nervous system, commonly known as the fight-or-flight response, and stimulates the production of new blood cells. While this response is important for survival, prolonged activation over an extended period of time can have negative effects on health.
A study in animals showed that this type of chronic stress changes the activation, or expression, of genes in immune cells before they are released from the bone marrow. Genes that lead to inflammation are expressed at higher-than-normal levels, while the activation of genes that might suppress inflammation is diminished.
Ohio State University scientists made this discovery in a study of mice. Their colleagues from other institutions, testing blood samples from humans living in poor socioeconomic conditions, found that similarly primed immune cells were present in these chronically stressed people as well.
“The cells share many of the same characteristics in terms of their response to stress,” said John Sheridan, co-lead author of the study. “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.
“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,” said Sheridan. The findings suggest that drugs acting on the central nervous system to treat mood disorders might be supplemented with medications targeting other parts of the body to protect health in the context of chronic social stress.