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Asthma: stress and immuno-competence

We have all heard that stress can cause illness and we now know that a disease is more likely to strike soon after a powerful emotional trauma, such as the death of a loved one. We now have evidence which suggests that emotional trauma causes such a stressful response that it may well kill someone, if not directly and immediately, then indirectly later on. In a sense people really do 'die of a broken heart'.

Animal studies show that separating a newborn from its mother lowers the total numbers of available lymphocytes in the newborn animal's body. The new science of psychoneuro-immunology (PNI), sometimes known as 'behavioural immunology', has indicated that this syndrome may well be much more common than we thought. Research with students undergoing exams found that a fall in immunoglobulins occurred at exam time. The fall was found to be consistent with the degree of stress with which a student viewed the exams.

As Professor David McClelland of Harvard University put it, 'some people are taking exams all the time'. In other words, some people are in a constant state of emotional arousal and this affects their resistance or immuno-competence. Another researcher, Janice Kielcolt Glaser from Ohio State University, looked directly at the activities of 'Natural Killer' (NK) cells and found a measurable reduction during stressful times, suggesting a correlation between cancer and stress. On the other hand, she found that relaxation increased lymphocyte response.

Another experiment showed that lymphosarcomas (a type of cancer) implanted in normal animals grew for an average of twenty days before the tumour cells died, presumably killed by Natural Killer cells. When the same group of animals was placed on a turntable and spun for nineteen minutes every hour for a week, the tumours did not stop growing and the animals died. What was altered by the stresses of rotation was immuno-competence.

In general usage, the word 'stress' describes an event which affects our state of mind, but in medicine the word means an excessive demand made upon an organism. We now know that the body perceives nutritional imbalances and exposure to chemicals and pollutants as stress, and that may seriously affect our immuno-competence.

The Vitamin Connection

Vitamins A, C and B6 and the minerals zinc and magnesium play an important role in the production of lymphocytes. The effects of vitamin B6 deficiency on the immune system are well documented, while a deficiency of vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) tends to inhibit the synthesis of immunoglobulins. Folic acid, often described as the vitamin most commonly deficient in our society, exerts an important influence on immunity. Oral contraceptives, alcohol, tranquillisers and anticonvulsants, as well as nutrient malabsorption, are common causes of nutritional deficiencies and play a part in decreasing our resistance.