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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


Don't Worry, Stay Well

Study shows immune systems are weaker in neurotic types


By Randy Dotinga
HealthScout Reporter

MONDAY, Jan. 22 (HealthScout) -- As if the Woody Allens of the world don't have enough to worry about, a new study suggests their neurotic attitudes may suppress their immune systems.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that moody and nervous medical students produced fewer antibodies in response to injections of a hepatitis vaccine.

The study, in this month's issue of the journal Health Psychology, adds new information to a large body of work that links mental attitude to illness, says co-author Anna L. Marsland.

Scientists already know neurotic people -- those prone to nervousness, sadness, irritability and worry -- are more likely to report illnesses.


"The question is whether they're hypochondriacs," Marsland says. "This study suggests they may actually be more susceptible to illness."

Researchers recruited 51 men and 33 women -- aged 21 to 33 -- to take part in the study. All were given psychological tests to determine their levels of anxiety and emotional stability. Fifteen percent of the subjects were found to have neurotic attitudes.

The subjects were also given immunizations for hepatitis B, a common liver disease. Like other vaccines, a hepatitis immunization works by making your body think it is being attacked. The immune system marshals its troops, known as antibodies, to fight the invaders. The antibodies then stay in your body and prevent future infections.

Researchers analyzed how the subjects' bodies reacted to the hepatitis vaccine. They found the immune systems of neurotic subjects weren't as strong as their counterparts.

They also made the subjects give short speeches in front of a video camera to measure their immune system's response to immediate stress. The immune systems of neurotic students suffered more than the others.

It's not clear why the neurotic subjects had weaker immune systems.

"Maybe they don't sleep as well, or their diet is different or they don't exercise," Marsland says. "All of those factors have been shown to be related to immune function."

There is also evidence that stress kicks in a fight-or-flight response that temporarily suppresses your immune system, she says.

While linking stress to illness may be easy, figuring out what to do about it is harder.


"I don't want to spread doom and gloom, but there's some indication that neuroticism is one of the more genetically inherited personality traits," which may make it hard to change, Marsland says.

A professor who has done similar research says the study will help pinpoint what it is about stress that weakens immune systems.

"That's a complex story for which we only have pieces of the answer," says Ronald Glaser, a professor at Ohio State University who has studied the effects of stress on caregivers who work with Alzheimer's patients.

Ongoing research may change how people look at their health, he says.

"Last year, I walked over to a clinic to get a flu vaccination. I signed in and waited to get a shot, and then I thought, 'I've had a lousy week, what am I doing here if our laboratory has shown how stress can affect how I'll respond to a flu vaccine?'"

Glaser left and went back another day for his shot. "Most people can determine when they get their vaccination," he says. "They don't have to get it tomorrow. If they know they're going through a tough week or two, they might want to wait a bit before they get a vaccine."

Stress reduction may end up becoming an important part of treatment of disease, he says.

"It's inexpensive and it's non-toxic," he says. "Even if it doesn't work, the patient feels better."

What To Do

If you tend to worry a lot, consider ways to reduce your stress level. Psychotherapy and anti-anxiety medication are two possible solutions, but don't forget the importance of exercise, a good diet and enough sleep.

You may want to take Glaser's advice about vaccines. You might even want to avoid the germs lurking in large groups, but remember soothing human contact is vital to beating your stress in the first place.