Does stress make you sick? What we know about stress and the immune system

How does stress impact your health? That question has been studied intensely by psychoneuroimmunology researchers for over 30 years. Continue reading

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How Does Early Life Stress Affect Health Across the Lifespan? — Professor Shelley Taylor, UCLA

How does early life stress affect health across the lifespan? This question has intrigued our research team for many years. People who experience early life stress, in the form of poverty, exposure to violence, noise, and other stressors, or who experience a harsh early family environment in the form of conflict-ridden, cold non-nurturant parenting, or neglect, have an elevated risk for illnesses, not only in childhood but throughout the lifespan; their adverse early experiences lead them to develop chronic diseases in adulthood earlier than is true for people who do not experience early hardships. These findings are somewhat mysterious, as it is not immediately clear why stress in one’s early life, during the first decade, would affect risk for illness in one’s 40s or 50s. Using a combination of laboratory experiments, large scale health studies, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and genetics studies, we’ve uncovered several of the reasons why. Continue reading

Childhood adversity and disease

Mounting evidence has demonstrated long-term negative physical and psychological health effects of stressors experienced in early childhood (Repetti, Taylor, & Seeman, 2002). But as health psychology researchers, what we’re interested in is why. How is it possible that something that happened in childhood could affect your health 50 or 60 years later? What are the mechanisms by which this would be possible? Continue reading

Possible link between poverty and health

About a year ago I went on a field trip to the California Science Center to dissect cow eyes with a class of third graders. I am a mentor for a 3rd grade student through an organization called I Have a Dream (IHAD). I was awestruck by how smart, funny, adorable, and happy these children were. They live in Inglewood, and there is not one Caucasian student in their class. They are from very low SES families. During lunch I was sitting at a picnic table chatting with three giggling girls. We started talking about pets. One girl told us that a few weeks ago she woke up and went to the kitchen to get some juice and found her dog’s head on the floor. Continue reading

Gene expression difference in lonely versus socially integrated people

Psychoneuroimmunology is a field you may not have heard of before, but if you break it down it’s pretty clear what the field studies: psych is for psychological, neuro for neuroendocrine (read: hormones), and  immunology for immune system. So it’s a field that studies how the mind effects the body. And specifically, how stress effects the immune system. There are many ways to study stress. I’ll have to blog about that another day. But I promise we believe we have very well validated was to assess all different kinds of stress. One way it to compare two groups of people – one group that has a specific type of stressor in their life, and one that doesn’t have that stressor – and see how they differ. An article in Genome Biology (Cole, 2007) explored the different genetic profile on socially isolated versus socially integrated people. They wanted to explore whether very lonely people over-express genes in the immune system. This would be bad because over activation of the immune system can propel chronic inflammation which is linked to many diseases like cardiovascular disease and cancer.  Through DNA microarray analysis, they found 209 gneges that were expressed differently in immune cells in lonely versus not-lonely people. Genes that help propel inflammation were over-expressed in the lonely people.  The authors conclude that “social isolation might potentially influence basic gene-regulatory processes involved in cell growth and differentiation.”  These results suggest that having friends may actually impact your genes and be beneficial for your immune system. How cool!

Stress during Childhood

In an exciting new article in Slate.com, top researchers discuss the various negative impacts of stress during childhood. Among many points the authors make, stress consists not only of severe physical and sexual abuse, but even negative interaction patterns where parent’s yell at or criticize their children can cause harm. The burgeoning field of connecting environmental stressors (like verbal abuse) with physical problems (e.g., lowered immune response) is an exciting and important new area of study. Studies like the recent PNAS article by researchers at UCLA on the response to social rejection indicate how important the mind-body connection really is.