Stress is known to suppress immune function and increase susceptibility to infections and cancer. Paradoxically, stress is also known to exacerbate asthma, and allergic, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, although such diseases should be ameliorated by immunosuppression. Moreover, the short-term fight-or-flight stress response is one of nature's fundamental defense mechanisms that enables the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems to promote survival, and it is unlikely that this response would suppress immune function at a time when it is most required for survival (e.g. in response to wounding and infection by a predator or aggressor). These observations suggest that stress may suppress immune function under some conditions while enhancing it under others. The effects of stress are likely to be beneficial or harmful depending on the type (immunoprotective, immunoregulatory/inhibitory, or immunopathological) of immune response that is affected. Studies have shown that several critical factors influence the direction (enhancing vs. suppressive) of the effects of stress or stress hormones on immune function: (1) Duration (acute vs. chronic) of stress: Acute or short-term stress experienced at the time of immune activation can enhance innate and adaptive immune responses. Chronic or long-term stress can suppress immunity by decreasing immune cell numbers and function and/or increasing active immunosuppressive mechanisms (e.g. regulatory T cells). Chronic stress can also dysregulate immune function by promoting proinflammatory and type-2 cytokine-driven responses. (2) Effects of stress on leukocyte distribution: Compartments that are enriched with immune cells during acute stress show immunoenhancement, while those that are depleted of leukocytes, show immunosuppression. (3) The differential effects of physiologic versus pharmacologic concentrations of glucocorticoids, and the differential effects of endogenous versus synthetic glucocorticoids: Endogenous hormones in physiological concentrations can have immunoenhancing effects. Endogenous hormones at pharmacologic concentrations, and synthetic hormones, are immunosuppressive. (4) The timing of stressor or stress hormone exposure relative to the time of activation and time course of the immune response: Immunoenhancement is observed when acute stress is experienced at early stages of immune activation, while immunosuppression may be observed at late stages of the immune response. We propose that it is important to study and, if possible, to clinically harness the immunoenhancing effects of the acute stress response, that evolution has finely sculpted as a survival mechanism, just as we study its maladaptive ramifications (chronic stress) that evolution has yet to resolve. In view of the ubiquitous nature of stress and its significant effects on immunoprotection as well as immunopathology, it is important to further elucidate the mechanisms mediating stress-immune interactions and to meaningfully translate findings from bench to bedside.
Copyright 2009 S. Karger AG, Basel.