Why stress makes colds more likely
April 2nd, 2012
03:07 PM ET

Why stress makes colds more likely

Most of us know from experience that stress weakens our immune system. Colds always seem to strike when we're overworked or emotionally exhausted, as do eczema flare-ups, headaches and a myriad of other health problems.

Doctors long ago confirmed that the connection between stress and health is real, but they haven't been able to fully explain it. Now, in a new study, researchers say they've identified a specific biological process linking life stressors - such as money trouble or divorce - to an illness.

In this case it's the common cold.

Most research in this area has focused on cortisol, the so-called stress hormone released by the adrenal glands when we feel threatened or anxious. One of cortisol's jobs is to temporarily dampen the immune system, specifically the inflammatory response, in order to free up energy to deal with threats.

The fact that cortisol suppresses inflammation presents a puzzle: People who are chronically stressed tend to have higher levels of cortisol, yet the sneezing, sniffling and coughing of the average cold are actually caused by the inflammatory response to a virus, not the virus itself.

Shouldn't stress therefore prevent cold symptoms?

Health.com: How to stop a cold in its tracks

The authors of the new study have an answer: The key factor that influences a person's vulnerability to illness appears to be the immune system's sensitivity to cortisol, not his or her cortisol levels per se. And chronic stress, the study suggests, may weaken the body's responsiveness to the hormone, allowing the inflammation that causes cold symptoms to run wild.

"Stressed people's immune cells become less sensitive to cortisol," says lead author Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. "They're unable to regulate the inflammatory response, and therefore, when they're exposed to a virus, they're more likely to develop a cold."

Cohen and his colleagues tested their theory in a pair of experiments, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the first, they interviewed 276 healthy men and women about the sources of psychological stress in their lives over the previous year, including unhappy work situations, long-term conflicts with family or friends, or legal or financial woes. And then they tried to get them sick.

Health.com: Job killing you? 8 types of work-related stress

The researchers gave each study participant nasal drops containing a rhinovirus (a common cold-causing virus) and quarantined them for five days, during which 39% of the volunteers came down with a cold. Those who were stressed-out had double the risk of falling ill, even after age, body mass index and a host of other factors were taken into account.

When the researchers went back and looked at blood tests taken a week or two earlier, they found no link between blood cortisol levels and the likelihood of getting sick. However, they did find that the typical relationship between cortisol and inflammation - as one rises, the other tends to fall - seemed to be disrupted in people who were stressed-out and in those who developed colds.

In these groups, cortisol levels had no bearing on inflammation (as measured by the levels of certain white blood cells), suggesting that "stressed people were... resistant" to cortisol and "non-stressed people were not," Cohen says.

A second, smaller experiment that used a different measure of inflammation confirmed the link between cortisol resistance and higher levels of inflammation.

Health.com: 7 steps to instant calm

Although a cure for the common cold is still a long ways off, the findings do raise the possibility that there may be "ways of intervening when a person is chronically stressed, possibly pharmacologically, to influence this kind of process," Cohen says.

An intervention of that sort wouldn't only be useful during cold-and-flu season, since a wide range of health problems have been linked to stress and inflammation, including heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

The study "implies that other diseases where the control of inflammation is important would be influenced in the same way—that we could find the same sort of mechanisms operating in those cases," Cohen says.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011

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Filed under: Cold and flu • Health.com • Stress

soundoff (726 Responses)
  1. c s

    The source of the stress does not matter. Perhaps this is why people who get chilled during winter also become sick.

    April 2, 2012 at 17:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Bob

    This should be no surprise to the researchers. Cells have cortisol receptors on them. The number of receptors drops when cortisol is chronically elevated – this is a protective measure. We see the same thing in the brain – if neurotransmitter levels are chronically elevated the number of receptors for that neurotransmitter decreases.

    April 2, 2012 at 18:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. medschoolkid

    This was a pointless study. I'm with Bob, researchers have known this for decades. I'm troubled that a study like this gets approved to be published when there are many much more groundbreaking and just as legitimate studies that were probably turned down.

    April 2, 2012 at 19:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Andrew

      MY GOD. Is this what FOXNews, talk radio, and conservative blogs do to people? This was a necessary study. And while the results may not have been 100% surprising based on theory and related findings, there appears to have been little, if any, research confirming this specific finding prior. Scientists don't go by the motto, "if it feels true it must be so there's no sense in studying it." And by the way, Bob did not say the research wasn't necessary.

      April 2, 2012 at 19:39 | Report abuse |
  4. Kevin

    I haven't had a cold or flu since 1997. I have had symptoms but when I get them I drink my tea with one aspirin and they are gone in a day.

    There are hundreds of FDA approved drugs created from plants found in the rain forest.

    When I visited Ecuador in 1997 I had a cold. The cook in the hostel gave me some tea and one 600mg aspirin and it was gone overnight and I was amazed!

    If I told you what I drank, you would jump up and down and scream that its wasn't FDA approved so it isn't any good. So I won't tell you.

    Seven years ago I was told that I had less than 1 year to live. I decided to go back to Ecuador and vacation. While vacationing with my friends I told them my condition. They gave me two names of plants and they told me how to prepare it. My blood tests, ultrasounds and cts do not indicate the cysts or the cancer cells anymore.

    Do your own research about rain forest plants.

    I didn't wait for the FDA.

    April 2, 2012 at 20:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • David

      Please tells us what you took for the cold and the cysts/cancer. Thanks!

      April 3, 2012 at 08:13 | Report abuse |
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    April 3, 2012 at 11:50 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Stress will do it to you

    April 5, 2012 at 04:36 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.