OSUMC researchers are uncovering new links between mind and body

By J. Craig Anderson

Centuries before medical science developed chemicals to counteract disease, people recognized that the mind often had the power to heal the body. What they didn’t know is that a vast pharmacy of hormones, enzymes and other chemicals exists within every human—and the mind is the pharmacist.

Our minds deliver chemicals to the places they are needed in our bodies. These healing substances control blood pressure, resistance to disease, proper organ function and other factors vital to good health.

Connecting Mind and Body

Today, researchers at The Ohio State University Medical Center are making great strides toward helping people stay healthy and prevent disease by understanding how chronic stress can throw the body’s chemical makeup out of balance. Their findings are encouraging, because they reveal that each of us has the power to learn how to manage negative feelings such as stress.

“Stress, by itself, is not necessarily problematic,” says psychiatrist Radu Saveanu, MD, chairman of the Department of -Psychiatry and executive director of OSU Harding Hospital. “But when it’s not managed correctly, that’s when it becomes a problem.” Saveanu says the connection between excessive stress and illness is no longer a theory, with studies on cardiac disease, breast cancer, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome and other conditions all revealing an undeniable link.

For instance, high stress levels cause the body to release an excess of cortisol, a “fight-or-flight” hormone essential to our ability to respond to emergency situations, Saveanu says. However, too-frequent releases of cortisol in response to the daily stresses of our increasingly hectic lives can negatively affect our health, resulting in persistent fatigue, poor cardiovascular health, challenged immune function and weight gain. “Many people who are under stress have much higher levels of cortisol in their blood,” he says.

Startling Studies

Barbara Andersen, PhD, professor of psychology at OSU, is involved in conducting a study of 200 breast cancer patients being treated at the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute. The study examined the relationship between stress, immunity and breast cancer. Results showed that breast cancer patients who felt high levels of stress surrounding their diagnosis and treatment displayed evidence of a weakened immune system when compared with patients who said they experienced less stress. This study continues and will determine if women with higher stress levels have a higher likelihood of recurrence than women with low stress.

Another OSUMC study, conducted by clinical psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, and Ronald Glaser, PhD, an OSUMC immunologist, uncovered that the effects of temporary stress on the immune system may be long-lasting or even permanent.

The husband-and-wife research team found a critical chemical pathway through which the human immune system is weakened by chronic stress. The study reinforced earlier work showing that people caring for chronically ill loved ones suffer from impaired immunity because of high stress.

Caregivers at Risk

The discovery pointed to a specific cytokine, interleukin 6 (IL6), as the mechanism by which the immune system may be compromised. Cytokines are small proteins that can either enhance or inhibit the body’s immune response. High levels of IL6 already have been associated with an increased risk for diseases in the elderly, including heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes and certain cancers. But the OSUMC study was the first to demonstrate and explain how caregivers are themselves at a much greater risk for developing their own serious health problems.

“We found that the caregivers’ average rate of increase in IL6 was about four times larger than that of the control group. This could have important implications,” Kiecolt-Glaser says. “It may well accelerate the risk of a host of age-related diseases as well as deaths.”

The study showed that the immune-system disruption caused by stress could linger in caregivers for as long as three years, even after they were no longer in that role.

Ronald Glaser describes those findings as surprising. “Stress and depression may permanently alter the responsiveness of the immune system,” he says.
Despite the seriousness of such findings, Saveanu says they should be cause for relief, not despair, because most people can be helped to better manage stress.
“We usually can treat the underlying symptoms with medication or therapy,” he says.

Free Class to Help Manage Stress

Effective coping for patients with a recent diagnosis of cancer is the focus of a new stress-management series being offered at The James, according to Joyce Hendershott, program manager of JamesCare For Life. The six-week Stress Management Series for Newly Diagnosed Patients with Cancer is offered on an outpatient basis.

The free program emphasizes social interaction, which can help counter stressful feelings as a result of the cancer diagnosis and provide an opportunity to examine and increase adaptive responses to the illness. Presenters will discuss typical responses to life stressors and demonstrate effective stress-management techniques.