Too Much of a Good Thing?

October 20, 2010

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Photo: Courtesy of Arvind Balarman

A NPR interview done with UCLA professor Rita Effros, discussed the effect stress plays on the immune system and how a hormone can be too much of  a good thing. Effros states “it all starts with Cortisol, a hormone we produce when we’re stressed”. Cortisol is released during periods of acute stress, slowing down your parasympathetic nervous system(PNS) – “rest and digest” – and sends blood to the parts of the body that need it most.  The example given is if you were running from a lion, Cortisol would be released under this intense stress, blood would be shunted from systems controlled by the PNS, such as the digestive system, to your muscles. To escape a hungry lion your body isn’t concerned with digestion, it wants your muscles work harder, moving you faster. Cortisol is usually only released to relieve short term stress, but when it is in the blood for a long period of time the systems of the body that were slowed down stay that way. Sounds great right? Wrong. Too much Cortisol isn’t helpful, its harmful!

How does this eventually lead to increasing your susceptibility of catching a cold? Well, the immune system is also slowed down when Cortisol is released, that means the longer the hormone remains in your system the longer you are exposing yourself to harmful pathogens. Read the rest of the interview to learn some interesting science behind the immune dwindling effects of Cortisol.

Hormones aren’t the only thing to blame for a weakened immune system though. When stressed, we tend to pay less attention to our bodies; we are getting less sleep, eating poorly, and sometimes ignore the symptoms that we may be getting sick. Take care of yourself! I know it is hard when there are a million things running through your mind, but that paper is not most important, your health and wellbeing is! Take breaks when studying, make sure you’re staying hydrated and fueled, put down the pen and let yourself go to bed an hour or two earlier. You’re body will appreciate it and prevent you from an even bigger set-back, catching a cold later on!

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