Author Archives: Keely Muscatell

How Stress Makes Us Sick

Jul 11, 2014, 11:00 AM, Posted by Keely Muscatell

Keely Muscatell, PhD, is a social neuroscientist and psychoneuroimmunologist. She is a post-doctoral scholar in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program at the University of California (UC), San Francisco and UC, Berkeley.

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Results from the recent NPR/RWJF/Harvard School of Public Health poll suggesting that Americans are living under high levels of stress probably don’t surprise anyone. In a way, I’ve been taking an informal version of this poll for the last six years, since when I tell people I meet on airplanes or at local bars that I study stress and health, I am unfailingly met with knowing glances and stories about stressors people are facing in their lives. Given that stress is pervasive (and problematic) in modern life, lots of current research in psychology and neuroscience is focused on understanding exactly how stress can get “into our brains” and “under our skin” to make us sick.

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When we think of illness, one of the first things that comes to mind is the immune system, with its lymph nodes, white blood cells, and antibodies hanging around to help us fight off infections and heal our injuries. An especially important component of the immune system involves inflammation. If you’ve ever gotten a paper cut, you’ve probably noticed that the area of skin around the cut tends to turn red and warm up shortly after the injury. This happens because proteins called “pro-inflammatory cytokines” swim through your blood stream to the site of the wound, where they call out to other immune cells to come to the area and help heal the cut. In the short term, this is a good thing; those little cytokines are a key part of healing. But if inflammation becomes widespread throughout the body, cytokines can lead to depression and even physical diseases, like arthritis and heart disease.

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