Your immune system is a collection of billions of cells that travel through the bloodstream. They move in and out of tissues and organs, defending your body against antigens such as bacteria, viruses and cancerous cells. When you’re stressed, your immune system has difficulty fighting off these antigens leaving you more susceptible to infections. Unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking or alcohol can further reduce the effectiveness of your immune system.
A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers some insight on how the immune system reacts to stress. It’s well known that stress activates the immune system in preparation for fighting infection and healing wounds. This might not sound like a bad thing. However, if the immune system is constantly activated, this can contribute to a multitude of chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and depression.
In the new study, researchers sought to determine whether the stress of personal conflicts would trigger the release of molecules known as cytokines, which are linked to inflammation. 122 young adults (53 men and 69 women) participated. They filled out diaries about their activities over eight days, focusing on their interactions with others and whether these were positive or negative. The participants were also given stress tests in the lab. Saliva samples were taken before and after those tests, to measure biological markers for inflammation.
The researchers found that cytokine levels went up after “negative” interactions, usually arguments. Without an actual wound or infection to fight, these molecules linked to inflammation are left circulating in your body. Low-grade inflammation in the body can contribute to buildup of artery-blocking plaque and disorders associated with an out-of-balance immune system, such as asthma.
“The message is that the flotsam and jetsam of life predict changes in your underlying biology in ways that cumulatively could have a bad effect on health,” according to study researcher Shelley Taylor, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Taylor further suggests that people should be investing in socially supportive relationships, and they should not engage in relationships that lead to a great deal of conflict. How you manage the stress in your life is vital to your health. Instead of reaching for that cigarette or drink, consider a healthy alternative such as taking a walk or joining a yoga class. Most importantly, surround yourself with a strong social network of friends and family. Those arguments just aren’t worth the risk to your health.