The effects of stress hormones on immune function may be vital for the adaptive reconfiguration of the immune system during fight-or-flight behavior

Integr Comp Biol. 2014 Sep;54(3):419-26. doi: 10.1093/icb/icu005. Epub 2014 Mar 31.


Intense, short-term stress (i.e., robust activation of the fight-or-flight response) typically produces a transient decline in resistance to disease in animals across phyla. Chemical mediators of the stress response (e.g., stress hormones) help induce this decline, suggesting that this transient immunosuppression is an evolved response. However, determining the function of stress hormones on immune function is difficult because of their complexity. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that stress hormones help maintain maximal resistance to disease during the physiological changes needed to optimize the body for intense physical activity. Work on insects demonstrates that stress hormones both shunt resources away from the immune system during fight-or-flight responses as well as reconfigure the immune system. Reconfiguring the immune system minimizes the impact of the loss of these resources and reduces the increased costs of some immune functions due to the physiological changes demanded by the fight-or-flight response. For example, during the stress response of the cricket Gryllus texensis, some molecular resources are shunted away from the immune system and toward lipid transport, resulting in a reduction in resistance to disease. However, insects' immune cells (hemocytes) have receptors for octopamine (the insect stress neurohormone). Octopamine increases many hemocyte functions, such as phagocytosis, and these changes would tend to mitigate the decline in immunity due to the loss of molecular resources. Moreover, because the stress response generates oxidative stress, some immune responses are probably more costly when activated during a stress response (e.g., those that produce reactive molecules). Some of these immune responses are depressed during stress in crickets, while others, whose costs are probably not increased during a stress response, are enhanced. Some effects of stress hormones on immune systems may be better understood as examples of reconfiguration rather than as mediating a trade-off.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptive Immunity / genetics
  • Adaptive Immunity / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Hormones / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological
  • Stress, Physiological / immunology*


  • Hormones