Stress – the immune system’s Nemesis

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stress the immune system's nemesis

In the 1960's stress only really scared people if they saw it in a physics exam or a load bearing wall. The only references made to stress in a doctor’s surgery were usually to do with stomach ulcers. Then in 1983 the first use of the phrase ‘stressed out’ was noted in the English language and we are now into a second generation of increasingly stressed out individuals.

Still, having been stressed out for most of our working lives, we still have a peaceful, stress-free retirement to look forward to. Or do we? Aside from the pensions’ time-bomb, we now have the plethora of 1000 things to do, try, eat, drink, see or jump off, to think about before we die . The personalized bucket list - instead of panicking about a work deadline, we get to panic about the final deadline.

So just how bad for us is Stress?

Some stress is good but in general stress is the real nemesis of the immune system. If the immune system does not function correctly, that spells poor health.

Patient QI wanted to know what advances have been made in understanding the relationship between stress and illness over the years so we carried out an analysis of stress related medical publications. We wanted to know if the number of published papers on stress and illness had changed over the past 43 years. If they had, we wanted to know what the hottest research areas were.

To check that the differences in the numbers of papers published on a topic were not simply due to an increase in published papers in general, we used the search term tonsillitis as a baseline check. (The number of papers published on tonsillitis has changed little between 1970, 1983 and 2012).

The Patient QI team then looked at the number of papers published in 1970, 1983 and 2012, using psychological stress (PS) as a stand alone term, then psychological stress with various other terms for health issues that are topical and stress related: immune system, hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiovascular disease, gastric ulcers, diabetes, cancer, inflammation, obesity, and physical activity.

The number of papers published in 1970 was taken to represent 100%, then the percentage increase or decrease in number of papers published per year for each search term was calculated for years 1983 and 2012.

Interestingly results show that there has been negligible change in the interest in psychological stress with gastric ulcers since 1970 and very little on stress and high blood pressure. By 1983 there had already been an increase in the number of publications on PS and cancer, and a slight increase in PS and cardiovascular disease.  There is a definite increase in PS and the immune system as well as PS and physical activity.

Between 1983 and 2012, the greatest increase in publications is on PS with inflammation closely followed by PS with the immune system, PS with physical activity and PS with Cancer. The interesting newcomers are PS with diabetes, and PS with obesity.

Clearly, ‘stressed out’ was not just a fad. Stress really is affecting our health and the immune system is on the receiving end.  Combating the effects of stress is more important than ever for maintaining good health. Natural remedies for inflammation, mind body relaxation techniques, micro-immunotherapy to support the immune system, a healthy diet and plenty of physical exercise are the order of the day … but then smart patients knew that anyway.








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