Louise Brown got divorced three years ago. She had not wanted to break up with her husband of seven years and says that at the time she felt terribly depressed. Today, she has pulled herself together but still feels strongly about the divorce. She feels rejected and abandoned.
She also complains of being constantly run-down and tired – always suffering from some minor ailment. “After Bob left me,” she says, “I got pneumonia, and ever since it’s been one thing after another. If it’s not a sore throat, it’s an ear infection. And if someone in the office gets a cold, I’ll be the first one to catch it.”
Howard Hunt is 32 and works for an advertising agency. He enjoys the challenge and competition of his job, but before the launch of a campaign, he feels tense and nervous. He is smitten with cold sores around the mouth and often has bouts of flu.
Could the two have similar causes? Could Louise Brown’s defenses against disease be weakened by her state of depression? Could Howard Hunt become prey to viruses when he is under stress because of looming deadlines? Research on the effects of stress on the body’s immune system suggests there is a connection and is beginning to explain why.
The cortisol effect set Janice Kiecolt Glaser, a psychologist at Ohio University, wondering if she had found an explanation why people under stress could be more at risk to infections than those leading stress-free lives. With her immunologist husband Ronald, she did some pioneer research in psycho-neuro-immunology, a new term for the study of how psychological factors affect the immune system.
The Glasers studied a group of separated or divorced women and a group of medical students before and during their examinations. In both studies blood samples were taken and the subjects filled in psychological questionnaires.
The blood samples were tested in different ways to assess the strength of the immune system. For example, measurements of the levels of antibodies and natural killer cells were taken.
In the first study, 38 divorced or separated women were compared with 38 married women. The women were asked questions rating their state of distress and the quality of their former union. Their controls, the married women, had to describe the quality of their relationship during the last six months.
When the Ohio team matched up the results of the blood samples and the questionnaires they found that the women who were divorced or separated had psychological problems, felt isolated and also had depressed immune systems.
“The stronger their attachment to their ex-husband or the greater their anger at the divorce, the greater the disturbance to their immune system,” says Janice Glaser. But with time and possibly a new relationship, the chances are they will improve. Married women having problems with their husbands also had weak immune systems.
In the study of medical students, blood samples were taken from a group of 75 a month before their final examinations and on the first day. There again the subjects who reported stress, or who were anxious and lonely, had disrupted immune systems.