Chronic psychological stress and the regulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines: a glucocorticoid-resistance model

Health Psychol. 2002 Nov;21(6):531-41. doi: 10.1037//0278-6133.21.6.531.


This study examined whether chronic stress impairs the immune system's capacity to respond to hormonal signals that terminate inflammation. Fifty healthy adults were studied; half were parents of cancer patients, and half were parents of healthy children. Parents of cancer patients reported more psychological distress than parents of healthy children. They also had flatter diurnal slopes of cortisol secretion, primarily because of reduced output during the morning hours. There was also evidence that chronic stress impaired the immune system's response to anti-inflammatory signals: The capacity of a synthetic glucocorticoid hormone to suppress in vitro production of the pro-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-6 was diminished among parents of cancer patients. Findings suggest a novel pathway by which chronic stress might alter the course of inflammatory disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Chronic Disease
  • Cytokines / blood*
  • Cytokines / drug effects
  • Dexamethasone / pharmacology*
  • Female
  • Glucocorticoids / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Immune Tolerance / physiology*
  • Interleukin-6 / blood
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Immunological
  • Neoplasms / psychology
  • Parents / psychology
  • Social Support
  • Stress, Psychological / immunology*


  • Cytokines
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Interleukin-6
  • Dexamethasone
  • Hydrocortisone