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Stress and the Immune system
There is increasing evidence that suggests stress can cause illness by impairing the
workings of the immune system. The immune system acts like a defence shield,
identifying and killing intruders to the body. It consists of cells distributed throughout the
body that fight disease. The cells within the immune system are called white blood cells;
these cells identify and destroy foreign bodies such as viruses. The presence of viruses
leads to the production of antibodies. Antibodies are secreted by T-cells.
Study into acute stress (1)
Kiecolt Glaser has done research into acute and chronic stress. For acute stress Kiecolt
Glaser wanted to establish a link between stress and reduced immune functioning. To do
this 75 medical students volunteered and researchers took blood samples to assess the
immune function by measuring t-cell activity. Blood samples were taken a month before
the exam (low stress) and during the day of the exam (high stress). Findings showed that
blood samples taken a month before the exam contained more t-cells compared with
blood samples taken the day of the exams.
The immune system is complex and so it is hard to be sure that its functioning was
impaired to high stress conditions.
Natural experiment does not establish cause and effect
Exam stress examines real life form of stress, instead of doing it artificially in a lab which
allows real results to be made.
Study into acute stress (2)
Marucha et al (1990) wanted to see whether exam related immune changes had a
dramatic effect on the rate at which wounds heal. Marucha inflicted a punch biopsy into
the mouths of students either during the summer holidays or 3 days before the exam.
They found that wounds given before the exam took 40% longer to heal then the other
Study into chronic stress (1)
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There have also been studies into chronic stress. Kiecolt Glaser et al (2005) tested the
impact of interpersonal conflict on wound healing. She found that blister wounds on the
arms of married couples healed more slowly after they had conflict discussions. Women
who were separated from their partners were found to have poorer immune system
functioning even being separated after a year.…read more