Escape from Stressville
The Science of Stress-Busting
You're struggling to meet a work deadline when you hear that your mother is in the hospital after breaking her ankle, your son needs you to come to school to sign a permission slip or he can't go on today's field trip, your husband is away on business, you haven't exercised in a month, and you're feeling stretched to the limit. It's Stress with a capital S, and what's worse, you're worried that the extra pressure is setting you up to get sick.
This story doesn't have to end that way. Recent research has led to an understanding of stress's biochemistry, why it makes you susceptible to illness and how you can stay healthy. It turns out there is a very short window of opportunity that can begin as stress peaks. Seize it by doing an anti-stress exercise and you may avoid getting sick.
It all has to do with the physical changes stress causes. When you're stressed your body releases into your bloodstream some pretty potent chemicals: cortisol, which depresses the immune system, and adrenaline, which can rev it up. "When both of these chemicals are being produced, the immune system is in balance," says Esther M. Sternberg, MD, director of the Integrative Neural Immune Program at the National Institutes of Health and author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions. As a result, you tend not to get sick while in the thick of a crisis. "But," Dr. Sternberg explains, "when the stress lessens, adrenaline level drops first -- then cortisol. During this time, when the immune system is suppressed by cortisol and not stimulated by adrenaline, you're most susceptible to infection." This likely explains why as crisis passes and you relax -- boom! -- you get sick. This discovery points the way to a new health defense. Pace yourself and bust stress as it peaks, and you may avoid illness.