The Good, the Bad and the Bacterium of Stress

Stress can wreak a lot of havoc on an individual. Whether emotional or physical, long-term or short, pretty much all of stresses consequences aren’t much fun. You get irritated, have trouble sleeping, get heart burn or perhaps cut off your husband’s penis.

But stress isn’t all bad. Despite old wives tales about stress-induced sickness, the body’s immune system actually goes on red alert during periods of stress. It becomes ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. The mechanisms for this response are largely a mystery, but new research from the Ohio State University is pointing to the gut for answers.

The number of bacteria cells in a human body outnumber the body’s own cells 10 to 1. For every skin cell, hair cell or muscle cell in your body, there are 10 more bacteria that are picked up throughout one’s life. But that’s a good thing. Human health depends on a balance, symbiotic relationship, between the bacteria living in the body and the host environment.

One of the most important functions of this human microbiome is the digestion of food. Most of the 100 trillion bacteria living in the human body has posted up in the digestion track. It’s because of these little buggers that we’re able to extract many nutrients and break down many materials that our body couldn’t do on its own.

It’s also the cause of a lot of childhood jokes.

But it also apparently is responsible for this immune response. It seems that when stressed, the relative amounts of different bacteria species alters and a lot of the little buggers – or their byproducts – get outside of the digestive track and prime the spleen to produce antibodies.

Michael Bailey and his coauthors discovered this by stressing out mice. For a two-hour period, they would stick a highly aggressive bully mouse in with a group of little nerd mice, causing them to freak the hell out. The stress caused a spike interleukin-6 (IL-6) and MCP-1. These letters and numbers are responsible for mediating inflammation and fever, and summoning scavenger cells to the site of an infection, respectively.

Next, the researchers fed the mice a bunch of antibiotics, which basically killed off about 90% of all of the foreign bacteria in the mice’s bodies. When stressed again, the spikes in the two biomarkers for increased levels of immune responses were only one-fifth as high as before.

In short, no bacteria = no alerted immune system.

The next step, the researchers say, is to better understand the roles that the bacteria play in activating the immune system, and to determine if other factors are playing a key role in the process.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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One Response to The Good, the Bad and the Bacterium of Stress

  1. Pingback: Stress Causes the Immune System to Wreak Havoc on the Brain | Big Ten Science

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