Monday, October 08, 2007 10/08/07-Stress and Colds

In today's excerpt--the effect of stress on sickness and disease:

"Under stress, the adrenal glands release cortisol, one of the hormones the body mobilizes in an emergency. ... If our cortisol levels remain too high for prolonged periods, the body pays a price in ill health. The chronic secretion of cortisol (and related hormones) are at play in cardiovascular disease and impaired immune function, exacerbating diabetes and hypertension, and even destroying neurons in the hippocampus, harming memory. ...

"Enter Sheldon Cohen, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University who has intentionally given colds to hundreds of people. Not that Cohen has a malicious streak--it's all in the interest of science. Under meticulously controlled conditions, he systematically exposes volunteers to a rhinovirus that causes the common cold. About a third of people exposed to the virus develop the full panoply of symptoms, while the rest walk away with nary a sniffle. The controlled conditions allow him to determine why. His methods are exacting. ...

"We know that low levels of vitamin C, smoking, and sleeping poorly all increase the likelihood of infection. The question is, can a stressful relationship be added to that list? Cohen's answer: definitely. Cohen assigns precise numerical values to the factors that make one person come down with a cold while another stays healthy. Those with an ongoing personal conflict were 2.5 times as likely as the others to get a cold, putting rocky relationships in the same causal range as vitamin C deficiency and poor sleep. (Smoking, the most damaging unhealthy habit, made people three times more likely to succumb.) Conflicts that lasted a month or longer boosted susceptibility, but an occasional argument presented no health hazard. ...

"While perpetual arguments are bad for our health, isolating ourselves is worse. Compared to those with a rich web of social connections, those with the fewest close relationships were 4.2 times more likely to come down with a cold, making loneliness riskier than smoking. The more we socialize, the less susceptible to colds we become. This idea seems counterintuitive: don't we increase the likelihood of being exposed to a cold virus the more people we interact with? Sure. But vibrant social connections boost our good moods and limit our negative ones, suppressing cortisol and enhancing immune function under stress. Relationships themselves seem to protect us from risk of exposure to the very cold virus they pose."

Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence, Bantam, Copyright 2006 by Daniel Goleman, pp. 225- 230.

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