Jan. 7, 1998 PITTSBURGH--Can stress reduction help our bodies defend against cancer? Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh researchers addressing this question are optimistic but not yet sure.
In an editorial in the Jan. 7, 1998 Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Carnegie Mellon psychologist Sheldon Cohen and University of Pittsburgh Medical School immunologist Bruce Rabin say that stress influences on the immune function may have implications for defenses against the development or growth of malignant tissue. However, the evidence for such a relationship is incomplete.
There are a number pathways through which stress might influence immune function, they say. These include biological links, such as nerves connecting the brain and the immune system, and stress-elicited release of hormones from the brain that alter the functions of immune cells. Stress might also alter immunity through its effects on behaviors such as increases in smoking and drinking alcohol, and loss of sleep.
Their commentary for the Journal of the National Cancer Institute was a reaction to an analysis of the association between the experience of stress among breast cancer patients and the function of their immune system reported by psychologist Barbara Andersen of The Ohio State University.
Cohen and Rabin evaluate evidence for stress-elicited immune change influencing cancer progression. They suggest there is substantial evidence that psychological stress can alter immune function. However, the role of the immune system in cancer is less clear, and there are questions as to whether the types of changes in immunity that occur under stress are the same types that might be important for cancer. The two researchers also discuss studies that demonstrate that interventions designed to reduce stress might lessen cancer recurrence and prolong life.
However, they point out that it is unclear whether beneficial effects of stress-reduction occur because of changes in immune function. Overall, their editorial suggests that existing evidence is consistent with an important role of stress-elicited immune changes in cancer but that convincing evidence for such a link is still a ways off.
Cohen is the author of two landmark studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that link stress to immune function. The New England Journal of Medicine report in 1991 was the first to link stress as a cause of the common cold. A 1997 JAMA report revealed that people with diverse social roles and supportive social networks are less likely to develop colds.
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