Modern medicine, which once treated the connection between emotions and physical health with skepticism, has come to appreciate the closely linked relationship of mind and body. A wide variety of maladies, including stomach upset, hives, and even heart disease, are linked to the effects of emotional stress. But although the relationship between stress and immune function is being studied by a number of different types of scientists, so far it is not a major area of research for immunologists.
Studying the relationship between stress and the immune system presents difficult challenges. For one thing, stress is difficult to define. What may appear to be a stressful situation for one person is not for another. When people are exposed to situations they regard as stressful, it is difficult for them to measure how much stress they feel, and difficult for the scientist to know if a person’s subjective impression of the amount of stress is accurate. The scientist can only measure things that may reflect stress, such as the number of times the heart beats each minute, but such measures also may reflect other factors.
Most scientists studying the relationship of stress and immune function, however, do not study a sudden, short-lived stressor; rather, they try to study more constant and frequent stressors known as chronic stress, such as that caused by relationships with family, friends, and co-workers, or sustained challenges to perform well at one’s work. Some scientists are investigating whether ongoing stress takes a toll on the immune system.
But it is hard to perform what scientists call “controlled experiments” in human beings. In a controlled experiment, the scientist can change one and only one factor, such as the amount of a particular chemical, and then measure the effect of that change on some other measurable phenomenon, such as the amount of antibodies produced by a particular type of immune system cell when it is exposed to the chemical. In a living animal, and especially in a human being, that kind of control is just not possible, since there are so many other things happening to the animal or person at the time that measurements are being taken.
Despite these inevitable difficulties in measuring the relationship of stress to immunity, scientists who repeat the same experiment many times with many different animals or human beings, and who get the same result most of the time, hope that they can draw reasonable conclusions.