Social ties can alter immune system

A social support system is one of the most effective means of reducing the impact of stress on the immune system, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI).

"Numerous studies have shown that the ability of the cells of the immune system to function is modified by hormones produced by the adrenal gland (cortisol) and the sympathetic nervous system (epinephrine and nerepinephrine)," says Bruce Rabin, a professor of pathology psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "The higher the concentration of these hormones, the less ability the immune system has to eliminate infectious agents."

Factors in an individual's life which increase the concentrations of these hormones in plasma are associated with decreased immune system functions and increased susceptibility to infectious disease. Behaviours which decrease the concentration of these hormones therefore would seem to increase the function of the immune system and increase resistance to infectious disease.

According to Dr. Rabin, in addition to an alteration of susceptibility to infectious disease, psychological stress may increase the likelihood of relapse in patients with autoimmune disease or may contribute to the onset of an autoimmune disease.

The effective strategies that help to buffer stress from modifying the hormonal concentrations in blood are a moderate amount of exercise, being optimistic, having a sense of humour, having a belief system that is comforting, and having a social support system.

Studies with college students and elderly individuals have demonstrated that at times of stress, those individuals who have a social support system are most likely to remain healthy.

Dr. Rabin participated in a laboratory study evaluating the influence of susceptibility to infection and social interactions on 276 individuals. "Experimental subjects were deliberately infected with Rhinovirus and the subjects were then monitored to determine which individuals developed colds. The more social interactions an individual had, the less likely they were to develop a cold," he says.

Those individuals with three or fewer social ties were four times as likely to develop a cold as individuals who had six or more social ties. "Of course, quality of the interactions is important. Interacting with individuals who create anxiety in one's life is probably not beneficial to the function of the immune system and health," says Dr. Rabin.

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Natural Life

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