As in so many areas of life, balance is better than one extreme or the other.
Public release date: 21-Sep-2009
Contact: Ruthann Richter
Stanford University Medical Center
Short-term stress enhances anti-tumor activity in mice, Stanford study shows
STANFORD, Calif. - Public speaking, anyone? Or maybe a big job interview? Dry your palms and take a deep, calming breath; there may be a silver lining. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have shown that, at least in laboratory mice, bouts of relatively short-term stress can boost the immune system and protect against one type of cancer. Furthermore, the beneficial effects of this occasional angst seem to last for weeks after the stressful situation has ended. The finding is surprising because chronic stress has the opposite effect -- taxing the immune system and increasing susceptibility to disease.
"This is the first evidence that this type of short-lived stress may enhance anti-tumor activity," said Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a member of Stanford's Cancer Center, and Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection. "This is a promising new way of thinking that calls for more research. We hope that it will eventually lead to applications that help us to care for those who are ill, by maximally harnessing the body's natural defenses while also using other medical treatments."
The study will be published in a future print issue of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, and a review copy of the article is now available on the journal's Web site.
The researchers studied a particular type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma that is known to be vulnerable to attack by the immune system.
Understanding how the intricate two-step between stress and the immune system plays out in the dance hall of diseases like cancer is important for future therapies. Certain types of stress, such as the so-called fight-or-flight response to an immediate but temporary threat, has been shown to increase the recruitment of immune cells to the surface of the skin and the surrounding lymph nodes -- presumably in preparation for imminent injury.
But he is convinced that acute stress may be better for us than most of us think, and that bio-behavioral interventions are worth investigating. As long as you can return to a normal, psycho-physiological resting state within a few hours of a stressful event, you'll probably be fine.
"The key is not to let the stress response linger," he said.