Scientists Add Up the Benefits of Stress on Boosting Immunity

Women who participate in short bouts of physical or mental activity before receiving a flu jab may boost their immunity to the flu virus, according to scientists at the University of Birmingham.

The study - the first of its kind in humans – showed that the women who took part in either 45 minutes of exercise on a stationary bike, or a 45 minute mental arithmetic contest immediately prior to being administered the flu jab, produced more antibodies than the other women in the study who sat and read quietly for the same time.

The study findings, published in the recent issue of the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, support the idea that while chronic stress seems to suppress immune function, acute stress may enhance it.

“We’re suggesting that the effect of stress could all be in the timing,” says lead investigator Dr Kate Edwards of the University’s School of Sport and Exercise Sciences. “What we think is that the acute stress is activating the immune system; it’s preparing it for a challenge.”

To conduct the study, the team recruited 60 healthy male and female University students. Each participant was randomly assigned to participate in one of the three activities – exercise bike, mental arithmetic or quiet reading - for 45 minutes. After completing the task, each person received a flu vaccination.

When antibody levels were measured after four weeks and again 20 weeks later, women in the physical and mental stress groups had more antibodies to the A/Panama flu strain than women in the control group. The exact mechanism of the immunological boost remains unclear, says the team.

The team adds that the evidence remains preliminary, since the women’s enhanced response was only in response to one of three flu strains and there was no evidence of the effect in men.

Dr Kate Edwards continues: “This preliminary study has thrown up some interesting results, and we now want to look into whether stress tasks of different natures, durations, and timings in a variety of populations, may also have an immunity-boosting affect. Our main priority now is among older people, who are most at risk of serious complications from influenza infection.”

Kate adds, “If further studies support our initial findings, we may be recommending that something as simple as walking to the hospital or clinic to get a vaccination might help boost their immunity.”

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

Antibodies are produced by the body and contained in the blood to combat disease. A higher increase in antibody levels indicates higher immunity.

The study, entitled “Acute stress exposure prior to influenza vaccination enhances antibody response in women”, is published in the March edition of Brain, Behavior and Immunity. To view full paper, visit: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science

The research team from the University of Birmingham is:

Dr Kate Edwards, Dr Victoria Burns, Tracy Reynolds, Professor Doug Carroll and Dr Christopher Ring from the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, and Mark Drayson from the Department of Immunology, School of Medicine.

The team would like to thank GlaxoSmith Kline UK for the donation of influenza vaccines for this study.

School of Sport and Exercise Sciences:

The University of Birmingham’s School of Sport and Exercise Sciences is one of the leading research departments in the United Kingdom, receiving a top 6* rating for its research by the Higher Education Funding Council of England in the recent Research Assessment Exercise.

The school’s research activities focus on Behavioural Medicine, Cardiovascular and Respiratory Physiology in Exercise, Exercise Biochemistry, Human Movement and Sport Psychology.

The School has just moved into a new £16.4 million building, housing cutting edge laboratories equipped with the most up-to-date testing apparatus.

For further information on school activities, visit: http://www.sportex.bham.ac.uk

Further information/interview requests:

Rachel Robson – Head of News Team, University of Birmingham

Tel: 0121 414 6681 / mob: 07789 921165 / email: r.a.robson@bham.ac.uk