Psychological Stress, Immunity, and the Effects on Indigenous Microflora

Adv Exp Med Biol. 2016;874:225-46. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-20215-0_11.


Psychological stress is an intrinsic part of life that affects all organs of the body through direct nervous system innervation and the release of neuroendocrine hormones. The field of PsychoNeuroImmunology (PNI) has clearly demonstrated that the physiological response to psychological stressors can dramatically impact the functioning of the immune system, thus identifying one way in which susceptibility to or severity of diseases are exacerbated during stressful periods. This chapter describes research at the interface between the fields of PNI and Microbial Endocrinology to demonstrate that natural barrier defenses, such as those provided by the commensal microflora, can be disrupted by exposure to psychological stressors. These stress effects are evident in the development of the intestinal microflora in animals born from stressful pregnancy conditions, and in older animals with fully developed microbial populations. Moreover, data are presented demonstrating that exposure to different types of stressors results in the translocation of microflora from cutaneous and mucosal surfaces into regional lymph nodes. When considered together, a scenario emerges in which psychological stressors induce a neuroendocrine response that has the potential to directly or indirectly affect commensal microflora populations, the integrity of barrier defenses, and the internalization of microbes. Finally, a hypothesis is put forth in which stressor-induced alterations of the microflora contribute to the observed stressor-induced increases in inflammatory markers in the absence of overt infection.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteria / isolation & purification*
  • Bacterial Translocation
  • Humans
  • Immunity
  • Intestines / microbiology*
  • Lymph Nodes / microbiology
  • Stress, Psychological / immunology*
  • Stress, Psychological / microbiology