Stress and depression that send emergency hormones flowing into the bloodstream may help cause brittle bones in women, infections and even cancer, researchers say.
A natural “fight or flight” reflex that once gave ancient humans the speed and endurance to escape primitive dangers is triggered daily in many modern people, keeping their hormones at constant hyper-readiness, experts say. Even some forms of depression bring on a similar hormonal state.
“In many people these hormones, such as cortisol, turn on and stay on for a long time,” Dr. Philip Gold of the National Institute of Mental Health, one of the National Institutes of Health, said Friday. “If you are in danger, cortisol is good for you … But if it becomes unregulated, it can produce disease.”
In extreme cases, this hormonal state destroys appetite, cripples the immune system, shuts down processes that repair tissue, blocks sleep and even breaks down bone, said Gold.
He was among the speakers at a two-day conference of the International Society for Neuroimmunomodulation, a group of experts who study the effects of stress and depression on physical disease.
Gold presented a study of bone density among 26 women, half suffering from depression and half with a normal emotional state. The depressed women had high levels of stress hormones, he said.
Although all the women were age 40, he said, those with depression uniformly “had bone density like that of 70-year-old women. They were clearly at risk of fractures. The magnitude of bone loss was surprising.”
A study at Ohio State University showed that routine marital disagreements can cause the “fight or flight” hormone reaction.
Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a psychologist, said a study of 90 newlywed couples showed that marriage arguments were particularly damaging to women.
In the study, the couples were put into a room together with blood sampling needles in their arms. The blood samples could be taken at intervals without the subjects knowing it.
A researcher then interviewed the couples and intentionally prompted a discussion that aroused disagreement and argument.
“The couples were at a point in their marriage when they should be getting along well, when there should be little hostility,” said KiecoltGlaser.
Yet, samples taken during the disagreements showed that the women experienced sudden and high levels of stress hormones, just as if they were in a “fight or flight” situation of great danger. The women also had steeper increases than the men.
The test continued through an overnight hospital stay and more blood samples were taken just before discharge. For the men, the blood hormone levels were back to normal, but the women still had high levels.
“The stress hormone levels showed that the women were much more sensitive to negative behavior than were the men,” Kiecolt-Glaser said.