Under the skin: how social and environmental factors affect health

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Chronic stress is a beast

Imagine that you are walking in the savannah and you meet a lion. Your body’s acute stress response kicks in and releases a flood of hormones, raising your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, and preparing you to fight or flee. It’s a short-term response, and from an evolutionary standpoint, it helps you survive. But when it happens regularly, it takes a toll.

Developmental specialist Kalsea Koss has frequently explored the stress response system while examining how the interplay between social environments and biology affects mental health during childhood and adolescence. She focused on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis which, in times of stress, coordinates the mobilization of the body’s resources, including metabolism, immune system and cognition. Research has consistently shown that the stress response system is activated not only by threatening experiences, but also by the lack of needed or expected care, she said.

“It’s adaptive in the short term. We want our stress response system to be active during times of stress, ”said Koss, assistant professor of human development and family sciences at the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “But for long-term health outcomes, repeated activation becomes problematic because these stress hormones can have neurotoxic effects on the brain.”

Katherine Ehrlich’s research focuses on how children’s social experiences shape their mental and physical health throughout their lifetimes. She uses a variety of research methods to assess social and emotional functioning, as well as health assessments, including measures of the immune system.

“The immune system makes a lot of sense to think of as a factor linking stress with disease, as chronic inflammation plays a key role in many chronic diseases of aging, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke.” said Ehrlich, assistant professor of psychology at Franklin. University. “For many of these conditions, there is a buildup of unresolved inflammation, and this leads to things like atherosclerosis and cells in the pancreas not responding to glucose regulatory signals.”

The immune system has an antiviral component that is active most of the time, and an inflammatory system that is largely deactivated but responding to a symbolic threat, according to Simons.

“As you get older, when inflammation is on, your antiviral system turns off to some extent and stress speeds up this process,” Simons said. “All kinds of things – discrimination, economic hardship, divorce, living in a dangerous neighborhood – raise your inflammation levels and turn off your antiviral program. After years of this you start to suffer from chronic illnesses.

A recent study by sociologist Ryon Cobb indicated that perceiving COVID-19 as a major health threat is a risk factor for higher levels of psychological distress among black respondents in a nationally representative survey. (Photo courtesy of Ryon Cobb)

Stressors that arise later in life can also take their toll. Sociologist Ryon Cobb uses data from large studies based on the adult population, particularly the elderly, to examine how chronic and acute experiences of daily discrimination and other stressors shape physical and mental health.

“What we mainly see is the stress that individuals experience on a daily basis, such as chronic discrimination or slights, negatively impacting the health of the elderly,” said Cobb, assistant professor of sociology at Franklin College. .

Although stressors can appear later in life, Simons’ research found that early exposure to adversity triggers the inflammatory system.

“This stuff predicts inflammation at age 60,” he said, “even after you’ve got all of your adult stressors under control.”


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