Science just got closer to a cure for stress

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

How are you doing on those New Year’s resolutions to meditate, practice yoga, exercise, and get organized? Because there could one day soon be an easier way to eliminate the harmful effects of stress from your life — maybe even in pill form. Researchers just got a step closer to that shortcut, by finding one of the ways stress communicates with the body’s immune system.

“We’re interested in understanding at the basic level the biological processes that stress causes on our bodies, and how this leads to disease risk,” Adam Moeser, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, tells Yahoo Lifestyle about the new study he coauthored for the Journal of Leukocyte Biology.

In most animals, stress causes a series of fight-or-flight reactions in the body, including the release of cortisol (the “stress” hormone), which increases blood sugar and reduces inflammation, paving the way for a quick response to immediate danger. But when the cause of that stress is not a predator breathing down your neck but a more chronic situation, having excess cortisol in the system can cause long-term problems. Those include increased risk of heart problems and a compromised immune system. Moeser and his colleagues looked specifically at how stress also causes increased allergic reactions, asthma, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

In this study, researchers looked at how the stress receptor called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF1) works on mast cells, which are the cells that alert the body to environmental threats such as allergens, pathogens, and toxins, releasing histamines to rid the body of these invaders. As anyone with allergies can attest, a high histamine level is not a great thing, and in extreme situations it can lead to anaphylaxis, IBS, and more. When testing the effect of stress on mice with CRF1 and on a control group without CRF1 receptors, the researchers found the latter had lower histamine levels.

If this sounds super specific, that’s the point. Scientists have long known that stress adversely affects the body, but they haven’t yet narrowed down exactly how that works. One way, it seems, is through those little CRF1 receptors. Knowing that means that they can begin to study ways to block those receptors.

So does that mean we’re closer to new medications to prevent stress altogether?

“It depends on where the drug would be working,” Moeser said. “It could alleviate our perception of stress, or it could be just preventing the harmful effects of our overactivated stress system.”

In the meantime, we’ll have to protect ourselves the old-fashioned ways, which have their own scientific backing too:

  • Aerobic exercise, which not only reduces those stress hormones but also releases endorphins to make you feel even better.

“A lot of times you can’t control the environment around you,” Moeser said. “It’s working on how to become more resilient to the stressors — that’s the thing you can control.”

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