A new study by researchers at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests our immune systems may benefit from a certain measure of stress. But how much is too much?
Stress has been shown to influence many health issues, like conception, preterm birth, obesity, asthma and even heart disease - and new findings show that that failure to lower stress 'early in life' could double risk of brain decline.
There is even evidence to show stress can alter the composition of breast milk, make us less attractive to our partners and that these physiological changes are so distinctive that dogs can even detect when we're stressed out through changes in how we smell.
Frequently medical advice, therefore, is to reduce its presence in our lives. But what if it could sometimes protect our bodies instead?
New study into stress
Surprising results from a new study in mice with a Crohn's-like disease suggests a measure of stress could sometimes work to boost the immune system.
56 days of stress did not seem to significantly increase small or large intestinal inflammation or microbiome. Instead, stress was found to increase the production of certain cytokines, proteins secreted by cells that play a protective role in wound-healing and tissue-regeneration. These proteins can have both anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory responses.
Psychological stress did induce changes in the mice - specifically, formation of TLOs, a type of immune cell that forms in response to chronic inflammation or injury and are associated with more severe inflammation. However, the intestines of stressed mice seemed to be less at risk of further disease, suggesting TLOs may have a protective effect, possibly by improving the mucosal barrier.
So do we want to be stressed?
The relationship between stress and illness is clear but complex.
“It all depends on the definition of stress," says one of the researchers. "‘Stimulated’ is a better term. The message is that a little bit of stress is good in your life, but you want to be stressed in the right way.”
So what is the 'right' way to be stressed?
This critical balance can be tough, as it varies with the individual. Removing all challenges from life, never taking a risk, or never entering situations where you feel under pressure is neither realistic, nor linked to growth and life satisfaction.
Instead, what it appears important to tackle is overwhelm: the point after ‘a little’ healthy stress tips into chronic or an overload of stressors in daily life or mind - which we know from a large body of previous research is linked to many detrimental physical and mental health conditions.
Find your own balance
Scientists have found that not only are some people are more susceptible to stress-related illness than others, but what is stressful for one person may not be for another.
Stress is fundamentally a psychological experience, and is unique to individuals. So while we know that negative life events or day-to-day overwhelm can lead to physical and mental health issues, a particular lifestyle, pace of life, challenging situation or event that may lead to illness in one person may sit squarely within another person's ability to cope and process it.
Our unique and subjective reactions to relationships and experiences in our lives can determine how much of an impact they will have - and the exact same experience can have vastly different impacts on two different people.
Understanding more about your own personality, resilience, limits and under what conditions you best thrive and how to set those conditions up in your life are key to finding the balance between the 'right' amount of activating and stimulating stress without tipping the scales too far.