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

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

soundoff (726 Responses)
  1. Willian Wiece


    June 2, 2021 at 07:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. rv dealers in orange county ca

    You are so interesting! I do not think I have read through something like that before. So wonderful to find someone with some unique thoughts on this subject. Really.. thank you for starting this up. This web site is one thing that is needed on the internet, someone with a bit of originality!


    June 2, 2021 at 07:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Alita Schroer


    June 2, 2021 at 09:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. semi truck shop near me

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you writing this write-up and also the rest of the site is extremely good.


    June 2, 2021 at 13:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. collision experts fargo

    It’s hard to find experienced people about this subject, but you seem like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks


    June 2, 2021 at 13:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jessie Dumire

    Have you ever heard of second life (sl for short). It is basically a game where you can do anything you want. SL is literally my second life (pun intended lol). If you want to see more you can see these Second Life articles and blogs


    June 2, 2021 at 22:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. rv interior repair

    Good article! We are linking to this particularly great content on our website. Keep up the good writing.


    June 3, 2021 at 01:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Sprinter Van Repair


    June 3, 2021 at 05:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Social Media Marketing Specialists


    June 3, 2021 at 06:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. rv alignment shops near me


    June 3, 2021 at 06:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Social Media Marketing Consultant


    June 3, 2021 at 07:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Google Marketing Consultant


    June 3, 2021 at 07:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. RV Flooring Orange County


    June 3, 2021 at 08:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Content Marketing Agencies

    Hi, I do think this is an excellent web site. I stumbledupon it 😉 I am going to return yet again since I saved as a favorite it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to help other people.


    June 3, 2021 at 09:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. RV Repair California


    June 3, 2021 at 11:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. agen judi online

    Heya superb website! Does running a blog similar
    to this take a massive amount work? I've absolutely no
    expertise in programming however I had been hoping to start my
    own blog in the near future. Anyhow, should you have any suggestions or
    techniques for new blog owners please share. I know this is off
    topic nevertheless I just had to ask. Thanks!

    June 3, 2021 at 12:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Repair Shops Near Me


    June 3, 2021 at 12:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. vinyl wraps for rv


    June 3, 2021 at 17:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. bus body repair

    This is the perfect website for anybody who hopes to find out about this topic. You realize so much its almost tough to argue with you (not that I actually will need toÖHaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a topic that's been discussed for a long time. Excellent stuff, just excellent!


    June 3, 2021 at 18:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Dodge Sprinter Repair Shop


    June 3, 2021 at 18:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. rv refrigerator repair company

    Spot on with this write-up, I absolutely feel this site needs much more attention. Iíll probably be returning to read through more, thanks for the information!


    June 3, 2021 at 18:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Sprinter Rust Repair

    Hello there! I simply would like to give you a big thumbs up for the great information you've got right here on this post. I'll be returning to your site for more soon.


    June 3, 2021 at 18:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Zackary Ingalls

    New, default glass


    June 3, 2021 at 19:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Digital Marketing Agencies Near Me


    June 3, 2021 at 23:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. perris collision

    I'm extremely pleased to discover this page. I want to to thank you for your time due to this wonderful read!! I definitely loved every little bit of it and i also have you saved to fav to look at new information in your web site.


    June 4, 2021 at 03:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Video Marketing Specialist

    Your style is very unique compared to other folks I have read stuff from. Many thanks for posting when you've got the opportunity, Guess I will just bookmark this site.


    June 4, 2021 at 03:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Mercedes Sprinter Repair Shops Near Me


    June 4, 2021 at 03:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. escape room near me

    Hello there! I just want to give you a big thumbs up for your great info you have got here on this post. I am returning to your website for more soon.


    June 4, 2021 at 03:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Dodge Van Repair


    June 4, 2021 at 03:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Dodge Sprinter Repair Shop


    June 4, 2021 at 05:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Diesel Sprinter Repair Near Me

    Nice post. I learn something new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon every day. It's always helpful to read articles from other authors and use a little something from their websites.


    June 4, 2021 at 11:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. solar panels orange county ca


    June 4, 2021 at 15:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. nail salons near me


    June 4, 2021 at 15:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Wheelchair Van Repair


    June 4, 2021 at 15:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Repair Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 Automatic Transmission


    June 4, 2021 at 16:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. 750 cash app

    Excellent post. Keep posting such kind of information on your site.
    Im really impressed by your blog.
    Hello there, You have performed a fantastic job.
    I'll definitely digg it and individually suggest to my friends.
    I'm sure they will be benefited from this website.

    June 4, 2021 at 17:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. orange county tire


    June 4, 2021 at 18:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. "apaas"

    fantastic publish, very informative. I ponder why
    the other experts of this sector do not notice this. You must proceed your writing.
    I'm sure, you've a great readers' base already!

    June 5, 2021 at 04:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Social Media Marketing Companies Near Me


    June 5, 2021 at 04:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Mercedes Benz Sprinter Body Repair San Diego

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you writing this article and also the rest of the site is also really good.


    June 5, 2021 at 04:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. mission hills collision center


    June 5, 2021 at 04:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. indeed jobs near me

    Hi, I do think this is an excellent website. I stumbledupon it 😉 I may come back once again since I book-marked it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to help others.


    June 5, 2021 at 05:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. 2006 Dodge Sprinter 2500 Heater Control Repair


    June 5, 2021 at 06:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Mecedes Sprinter Repair


    June 5, 2021 at 06:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. Sherice Bruegger

    This was awesome! I would like you to clean up all this spam though


    June 5, 2021 at 11:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. Dodge Sprinter Auto Repair


    June 5, 2021 at 23:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Dodge Sprinter Auto Repair

    Everything is very open with a precise explanation of the issues. It was really informative. Your website is useful. Thank you for sharing!


    June 5, 2021 at 23:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. covid 19 testing near me

    Hi there! I just would like to give you a huge thumbs up for the great information you have got right here on this post. I'll be coming back to your website for more soon.


    June 6, 2021 at 03:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. Sprinter Van Rooftop A/C Leak Repair

    An impressive share! I've just forwarded this onto a co-worker who has been doing a little homework on this. And he actually bought me breakfast because I discovered it for him... lol. So let me reword this.... Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending some time to discuss this matter here on your website.


    June 6, 2021 at 09:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. http://montereyphonerepair.com

    First of all I would like to say awesome blog!

    I had a quick question that I'd like to ask if you do not mind.
    I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts before writing.

    I have had trouble clearing my mind in getting my ideas out.
    I do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are usually
    wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?
    Thank you!

    June 6, 2021 at 13:28 | Report abuse | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Leave a Reply to Shanita Kuznicki


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

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.