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Neuroimmunomodulation 2009;16:300–317

Enhancing versus Suppressive Effects of Stress on Immune Function: Implications for Immunoprotection and Immunopathology

Dhabhar F.S.
Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, and Stanford Institute for Immunity, Transplantation, & Infection, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., USA
email Corresponding Author

 goto top of outline Key Words

  • Acute stress-induced enhancement
  • Fight-or-flight stress
  • Immune cell distribution
  • Immune function, effects of stress
  • Immune function, enhancing vs. suppressive effects
  • Immunoprotection vs. immunopathology
  • Innate/primary immune responses
  • Leukocyte trafficking
  • Adaptive/secondary immune responses

 goto top of outline Abstract

Stress is known to suppress immune function and increase susceptibility to infections and cancer. Paradoxically, stress is also known to exacerbate asthma, and allergic, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, although such diseases should be ameliorated by immunosuppression. Moreover, the short-term fight-or-flight stress response is one of nature’s fundamental defense mechanisms that enables the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems to promote survival, and it is unlikely that this response would suppress immune function at a time when it is most required for survival (e.g. in response to wounding and infection by a predator or aggressor). These observations suggest that stress may suppress immune function under some conditions while enhancing it under others. The effects of stress are likely to be beneficial or harmful depending on the type (immunoprotective, immunoregulatory/inhibitory, or immunopathological) of immune response that is affected. Studies have shown that several critical factors influence the direction (enhancing vs. suppressive) of the effects of stress or stress hormones on immune function: (1) Duration (acute vs. chronic) of stress: Acute or short-term stress experienced at the time of immune activation can enhance innate and adaptive immune responses. Chronic or long-term stress can suppress immunity by decreasing immune cell numbers and function and/or increasing active immunosuppressive mechanisms (e.g. regulatory T cells). Chronic stress can also dysregulate immune function by promoting proinflammatory and type-2 cytokine-driven responses. (2) Effects of stress on leukocyte distribution: Compartments that are enriched with immune cells during acute stress show immunoenhancement, while those that are depleted of leukocytes, show immunosuppression. (3) The differential effects of physiologic versus pharmacologic concentrations of glucocorticoids, and the differential effects of endogenous versus synthetic glucocorticoids: Endogenous hormones in physiological concentrations can have immunoenhancing effects. Endogenous hormones at pharmacologic concentrations, and synthetic hormones, are immunosuppressive. (4) The timing of stressor or stress hormone exposure relative to the time of activation and time course of the immune response: Immunoenhancement is observed when acute stress is experienced at early stages of immune activation, while immunosuppression may be observed at late stages of the immune response. We propose that it is important to study and, if possible, to clinically harness the immunoenhancing effects of the acute stress response, that evolution has finely sculpted as a survival mechanism, just as we study its maladaptive ramifications (chronic stress) that evolution has yet to resolve. In view of the ubiquitous nature of stress and its significant effects on immunoprotection as well as immunopathology, it is important to further elucidate the mechanisms mediating stress-immune interactions and to meaningfully translate findings from bench to bedside.

Copyright © 2009 S. Karger AG, Basel

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 goto top of outline Author Contacts

Firdaus S. Dhabhar
Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, and
Stanford Institute for Immunity, Transplantation, & Infection, Stanford University
300 Pasteur Drive, MC 5135, Stanford, CA 94305-5135 (USA)

 goto top of outline Article Information

Published online: June 29, 2009
Number of Print Pages : 18
Number of Figures : 2, Number of Tables : 0, Number of References : 111

 goto top of outline Publication Details


Vol. 16, No. 5, Year 2009 (Cover Date: June 2009)

Journal Editor: Savino W. (Rio de Janeiro)
ISSN: 1021-7401 (Print), eISSN: 1423-0216 (Online)

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