Chronic Stress Leads To Cortisol Resistance, Inflammation and Disease

It seems obvious that a person under chronic stress may eventually get sick.  The question is: how does that happen?   A recently published study entitled, Chronic Stress, Glucocorticoid Receptor Resistance, Inflammation and Disease Risk, reveals that chronic stress inevitably makes us sick and more prone to inflammation and disease through cortisol resistance.

Published April 2nd, 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the research was separated into 2 viral-challenge studies.  The first study was meant to determine whether stress causes cortisol resistance and whether people with cortisol resistance are more likely to develop a common cold.  Two hundred and seventy-six healthy volunteers were assessed for recent stressful life events, glucocorticoid receptor resistance (GCR), and various baseline levels such as race, sex, age, BMI.  The volunteers were quarantined, exposed to a virus, and followed for 5 days.  Those volunteers with a recent exposure to a long-term stressful event demonstrated glucocorticoid receptor resistance (GCR), and those with GCR were at higher risk of subsequently developing a cold.

The second study was meant to determine whether cortisol resistance could make a person have more inflammation.  Using the same control variables, 79 volunteers were exposed to a virus and monitored at baseline and for 5 d ays after the viral challenge for the production of local inflammatory markers in their nasal secretions.  It was found that people with greater glucocorticoid receptor resistance had more local proinflammatory cytokines among infected subjects. 

What does this all mean?  Chris Kresser, author of the Healthy Skeptic, a website and blog discussing current health research, discusses why this new research paints a different picture of stress and disease:

“I think most people think that stress causes disease by dysregulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, but this notion that stress acts simply by elevating cortisol levels is becoming less and less likely, at least in the current scientific literature,” said Kresser.  “This new paper and other recent papers suggest that it’s actually the sensitivity of cells or the target tissue to cortisol, not absolute levels of cortisol that’s most important.”

Similar to the concept of insulin resistance, leptin resistance, or even thyroid hormone resistance, this latest research suggests that people can have cortisol resistance, which can lead to illness, chronic inflammation and other health problems.  Just one more reason to make exercise, sleep, yoga, meditation, massage, or whatever else you do for stress management a priority in your life.

“I think I can pretty safely say that people who are taking active steps to manage their stress have significantly better clinical outcomes than people who don’t,” said Kresser.  “I just think stress is a much bigger contributor to disease than most of us really realize.”