Stress, immune regulation, and immunity: applications for asthma

Allergy Asthma Proc. Jul-Aug 2000;21(4):241-6. doi: 10.2500/108854100778248917.


The neuroendocrine mediators reach the cells of the immune system either through the peripheral circulation or through direct innervation of lymphoid organs. Primary and secondary lymphoid organs are innervated by sympathetic nerve fibers. Lymphocytes and monocytes express receptors for several stress hormones, including CRH, ACTH, cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the neuroendocrine hormones released during a stressful event could alter immune function and subsequently alter the course of immune-based diseases. The impact of psychological stress on immune function has been the subject of extensive research efforts. Using a variety of models from largely healthy humans undergoing various forms of natural and experimental stress models, stress has been associated with suppression of NK activity, mitogen- and antigen-induced lymphocyte proliferation and in vitro production of IL-2 and IFN-gamma. Psychological stress is also associated with a higher rate of in vivo hypoergy to common recall-delayed type hypersensitivity antigens. These studies have suggested that psychological stress suppresses various components of CMI responses. Also, data suggest that chronic stress does not simply suppress the immune system, but induces a shift in the type-1/type-2 cytokine balance toward a predominant type-2 cytokine response. Such a change would favor the inflammatory milieu characteristic of asthma and allergic diseases. Recent studies using well-controlled teenage asthmatic subjects demonstrated immunological changes (decreased NK cell cytotoxicity and cytokine alterations) in response to exam stress. These immune alterations are consistent with a cytokine milieu that could potentially worsen asthma. However, there were no changes in peak flow rates, self-report asthma symptoms, or medication use. The lack of correlation between stress and asthma symptoms may have been related to the timing of the visits in relation to the stressor, the duration of the stressor, disease severity, or a lack of accurate self-report data. Alternatively, stress-mediated exacerbations of asthma may require multiple alterations by stress, including cytokine dysregulation or vagal-mediated airway hyperresponsiveness. The rationale for stress management in asthma is based upon the notion that stress causes a change in immune balance that would favor asthma activity in susceptible individuals. This immune imbalance can be found in TH1/TH2 cytokine changes that occur with stress. Although it has not yet been demonstrated that stress can cause or directly influence the development of asthma, it is interesting to note that both the incidence and prevalence of asthma continue to increase and are higher in urban than in rural areas. Among other differences is the well-appreciated higher chronic stress levels associated with urban living.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Asthma / epidemiology
  • Asthma / etiology*
  • Asthma / immunology
  • Humans
  • Immune System / immunology*
  • Immunity, Cellular / immunology
  • Incidence
  • Interferon-gamma / immunology
  • Interleukin-2 / immunology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology
  • Lymphocyte Activation
  • Prevalence
  • Rural Health
  • Stress, Physiological / complications*
  • Stress, Psychological / complications
  • Th1 Cells / immunology
  • Th2 Cells / immunology
  • Urban Health


  • Interleukin-2
  • Interferon-gamma