The importance of stress reduction to health

Feeling stressed? You're not alone. A recent Gallup poll says eight out of 10 Americans feel so, too.

Chronic stress is fast becoming a public health crisis, according to the American Psychological Association. Studies show stress is rising, willpower is waning and self-care is a diminishing priority for adults and children nationwide.

“Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser's team has scientifically proven how stress limits the body's ability to heal wounds, respond to vaccines, fight infection and maintain a healthy gut.” Click to tweet this story

Thankfully, researchers at The Ohio State University College of Medicine are doing something about it.

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, professor of Psychiatry and director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research (IBMR) at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, is leading a multidisciplinary team of 22 faculty members representing five colleges and nine departments in research efforts to help combat stress in the United States and around the world.

"We believe research is a team sport," Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser says. She also believes pulling multidisciplinary investigators together from all over campus is simply a testament to the spirit of collaboration at Ohio State. And, in true Buckeye fashion, we're leading the way in behavioral health research – together.

Mission Statement: The Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research functions as an incubator to create and disseminate cutting-edge mind-body research that will enhance individual and community health.

9 Departments + 22 Faculty Members

5 Colleges

  • College of Medicine
  • College of Dentistry
  • College of Public Health
  • College of Arts & Sciences
  • College of Education & Human Ecology

10 Disciplines

  • Anesthesiology
  • Biostatistics
  • Endocrinology
  • Immunology
  • Microbiome/Microbiology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Neuroscience
  • Nutrition
  • Psychiatry
  • Psychology

Stress and the Human Body

When Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser began her research at Ohio State in the 1980s, the medical community didn't yet recognize that stress could have clinically relevant effects on the immune system. Because of her efforts and those of her colleagues in the IBMR, now we do.

In fact, Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser's team has scientifically proven how stress limits the body's ability to heal wounds, respond to vaccines, fight infection and maintain a healthy gut.

  • Stress slows wound healing. In both mouse and human models, researchers created small wounds to see how stress affected healing. They found stress can extend the time required to heal wounds by 25 percent or more.
  • Stress impairs vaccine responses. Researchers gave the influenza vaccine to men and women who were providing care for a spouse with Alzheimer's. Many of the stressed caregivers were unresponsive to the flu shot – demonstrating how stress can alter the body's ability to respond to important vaccines. In fact, we've shown that even young healthy medical students have delayed responses to vaccines when they're stressed.
  • Stress affects fighting off infection. Immunology researchers pushed the limits of basic science to discover how stress inhibits the immune system's ability to respond, making stressed people more likely to get sick - and stay sick.
  • Stress affects metabolism in ways that promote weight gain. Recent studies show that when stressed people eat a fast food-type, high-fat meal, they burn fewer calories, oxidize less fat and produce more insulin than non-stressed people. This increases fat storage and promotes weight gain.

Because of IBMR research, the impacts of stress are becoming increasingly clear. But Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser and her team also know that people need to be able to identify strategies to combat stress.

"Close personal relationships are important for health, particularly when we're stressed," she says. And Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser would know. Her research teams were the first to show how loneliness impacts the immune system.

Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser’s studies have demonstrated the health consequences of stress, including slower wound healing and heightened inflammation, which is linked to many age-related diseases.

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Stress, Microbiology and Gut Health

While the connection between stress and stomach trouble is easy for most people to accept, the reasons why have remained elusive. Until now. The answer lies in microbiome research conducted by some of the top experts in the nation – right here at Ohio State.

Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser's lab delves deep into the similarity of the gut microbiome within couples. "When people live together, their microbiomes become similar," she explains. "You share everything, for better or for worse." And when those relationships are troubled, you'll discover elevated biomarkers for leaky gut – lipopolysaccharide-binding protein, to be exact – which directly promotes inflammation. What's more, the odds for gut-related inflammation skyrocket in patients with a history of depression and other mood disorders.

The gut microbiome is an important connection between mother and child. Tamar Gur, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Psychiatry and a maternal-fetal psychiatrist at The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, is looking at mouse models in pregnancy to determine how prenatal stress affects the offspring's gut microbiome. Her work has demonstrated how prenatal stress leads to problematic behavior and heightened inflammation in children. She believes helping the mother is the best possible treatment for the infant – and she's making a strong scientific case for it.

Meanwhile, Lisa Christian, PhD, associate professor of Psychiatry, is examining the effects of psychosocial stress and obesity on maternal antibody responses to the influenza virus vaccine during pregnancy, maternal antibody maintenance over time and efficiency of antibody transfer from the mother to the neonate.

Leah Pyter, PhD, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, is exploring the gut microbiome in both mouse models and women with breast cancer, showing how chemotherapy may disrupt the gut microbiome, with negative effects on cognitive functioning, known as "chemo brain."

A unique partnership has allowed Michael Bailey, PhD, to straddle the line as part of Ohio State's IBMR and The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital. Because of his co-placement, he has established clear links among stress, the sympathetic nervous system and changes in the microbes in the gut. Some of his work has shown how stress can increase the number of pathogenic bacteria in the gut.

Mindfulness, Yoga and Presurgical Cognitive Interventions

The term "mindfulness" is thrown around casually in modern self-help circles. But the IBMR believes mindfulness could not only be helpful from a preventive medicine standpoint, but also in healing, recovery and pain relief.

IBMR teams were also the first to demonstrate the anti- inflammatory effects of yoga in 2005. Breakthroughs continued as the researchers showed that yoga was a beneficial therapy for cancer survivors, reducing fatigue and inflammation, while improving sleep.

Michelle Humeidan, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Anesthesiology, is studying the effects of cognitive training exercises before surgery and impacts on post-surgery delirium. She's also exploring factors that influence the development of chronic pain.

Other efforts include the work of John Sheridan, PhD, professor of Biosciences and Neuroscience and associate IBMR director for basic science. He uses a preclinical model to show how the social stress of a new aggressive group member and the resulting defeat/subordination in the group can ultimately lead to mood disorders and anxiety-like behavior, with inflammation playing a key role.

Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser beams at the success of her IBMR teams. "I have such extraordinary collaborators spanning so many disciplines," she says. "It's the only way we can do the depth and breadth of work we do.

Together, we are the biggest and best group in the world."

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