“Researchers link prolonged stress to a variety of serious ailments.WASHINGTON - Stress and depression that send emergency hormones flowing into the bloodstream may contribute to 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 people today, 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,” said Philip Gold of the National Institute of Mental Health. “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 the two-day conference of the International Society for Neuroimmunomodulation, a group of experts who study the effects of stress and depression on physical disease.

On Friday, 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 could cause the “fight or flight” hormone reaction.

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a psychologist, said a study of 90 newly wed couples showed that marriage arguments where 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 Kiecolt-Glasser.

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 that the men.

“The stress hormone levels showed that the women were much more sensitive to negative behavior than were the men,” Kiecolt-Glaser said.

People with such high levels of stress hormones are at a much greater risk of getting sick, said Ronald Glaser, an Ohio State virologist and the husband of Kiecolt-Glaser.

“If the hormone levels stay up longer than they should, there is a real risk of infectious disease,” he said. Glaser tested the effects of stress on the immune system by giving hepatitis vaccine shots to 48 students, including 23 medical students in the midst of final examinations. Blood tests showed that the medical students had high levels of stress hormones.

Normally, a vaccination will cause the immune system to develop antibodies and white blood cells that will protect against a disease.

A month later, the students returned for booster shots, and their blood again was tested. Glaser said those who had been under stress developed the least protection against hepatitis.

“The antibody levels were lowest among the medical students,” said those who had been under stress developed the least protection against hepatitis.

“The antibody levels were lowest among the medical students,” said Glaser. Even six months later, he said, the higher stressed students still had the lowest level of disease protection.

A similar study was conducted with elderly people - at an average age of 68 - who were given flu shots. Those with high levels of stress hormones when they got the shots “had a very significant difference in antibody response,” said Glaser. “These people were much less protected than their counterparts.”

Glaser said that people with weak immune systems caused by high stress hormone levels also are more likely to become infected with viruses that are linked to cancer. Viral infections, for instance, are thought to cause liver cancer, leukemia and some forms of skin cancer.”

I learned about cortisol in college, and yes it is quite toxic. Funny how a “natural” chemical produced by our own bodies can be a poison.

From my college textbook:

“Research in animals has shown that long-term exposure to glucocortisoids destroys neurons located in a particular zone of the hippocampal formation (same region where marijuana works BSJ). The hormone appears to destroy the neurons by making them more susceptible to potentially harmful events.... Perhaps then, the stress which people are subjected to increases the likelihood of memory problems later in life. ...If stress is intense enough it can even cause brain damage in young primates. The investigators studied a colony of Vervet monkeys. They found that some monkeys died, apparently from stress...(they) were picked on by others; thus, they (were) continuously subjected to stress. (another section on effects of glucocotisoids on immune system follows.)