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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Health Note: Stress

Air Date: Week of November 2, 2001

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Living on earth's Diane Toomey reports that low levels of stress can boost your immune system but only if you can play an active role in dealing with that stress.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Just ahead, a look at how tax dollars sometimes protect and sometimes harm the land that feeds us. First, this environmental health note from Diane Toomey

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TOOMEY: Studies done in the 1980's proved that long periods of stress could weaken immune systems. Then, in the 1990's, researchers discovered that short periods of stress could actually boost the immune system. Now, new research shows that a short period of stress is only good for us when we can take an action in response to it.

Thirty-four male students at Ohio State took part in two experiments designed to compare the effects of active and passive coping with stress on the body's immune system. In the first experiment students memorized material, then took a test. In the second they watched a video on surgical procedures. Both of these activities were considered stressful, but memorizing and taking a test is active, in that you actually do something to relieve the stress. The passive act of watching a stressful video can leave you feeling helpless.

Researchers examined the presence of immunoglobulins, proteins in our bodily fluids that help fight disease. After the active stress test there were more of these proteins in the subjects' saliva. After the passive experiment these numbers dropped. Researchers think challenges such as deadlines at work may keep our immune systems functioning in top form. On the other hand, watching something distressing, such as the World Trade Center tragedy, researchers say, could make us more susceptible to illness. That's this week's health note. I'm Diane Toomey.

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