Stress may be mental in the beginning, but because the mind controls the body, it will quickly be felt everywhere else. Earlier this month we discussed how stress is related to physical pain, which provided a glimpse into how stress affects a person’s overall health. Now we’ll take a closer look at how stress impacts the immune system and the body’s ability to keep illness in check.
Stress and Its Effects on the Brain
To understand how stress leads to illness and disorders like TMD we must first understand how it affects the brain. The brain is the control center for everything in the body. When it senses stress, the brain responds by releasing a variety of chemicals. This is a part of our natural “fight or flight” response to a perceived threat – and stressors are seen as threats.
The process begins in the hypothalamus. It sends out a hormone that causes a reaction in the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then releases a hormone that activates the adrenal gland, causing it to generate stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones influence all kinds of chemical messages that regulate the body, including the immune system.
Another problem is that stress and the immune system share the same brain pathways. The processes that take effect when stress is felt are the same processes that drive the immune system. Therefore, stress begets immune system problems and vice versa.
The fight or flight affect can last for a few minutes or a few hours without negatively impacting the body. But if prolonged, chronic stress wears the body down and eventually leads to a compromised immune system.
Stress and the Immune System
A common side effect of chronic stress is an increase in colds and infections. This is a result of suppression and/orabnormal regulation of the immune system. It’s a problem that gets compounded the longer stress lasts. Eventually the immune system isn’t able to properly and fully respond to viruses and infections.
A study conducted at Ohio State University College of Medicine in the 1980s uncovered a number of immune system irregularities as a result of constant stress:
- A decrease in the production of natural killer cells that fight off tumors and viral infections.
- Participants produced almost no immunity-boosting gamma interferon.
- Infection-fighting T-cells had an extremely weak response when tested.
This was the beginning of the study into how stress and the immune system are interconnected. Hundreds of studies have now been conducted and found that constant stress strains the entire immune system.
People who already have a disease or disorder are most susceptible to stress-related immune system problems. For example, someone with arthritis already produces elevated levels of cortisol compared to individuals without arthritis. When stress increases cortisol production, pain and other arthritis symptoms will occur.
Stress, Illness and TMJ Disorders
On the surface, illness and TMJ disorders might not appear to be connected. But imagine for a moment that it’s the holiday season and you’ve been stressed out trying to get everything wrapped up at the office while also getting ready to host a Christmas party at your house and shopping for presents. You’re run down and fatigued but somehow unable to sleep. After about five hours of restlessness you wake and immediately you notice the congestion. You have a cold.
The stress you’ve been under has left you more susceptible to getting sick. The congestion from the cold is not only annoying it’s affecting how you breathe. Having to breathe through your mouth has put strain on your jaw muscles and now your TMJ symptoms are starting to flare up.
Earaches, headaches, arthritis – many illnesses that are linked back to stress can cause TMD or make it worse. On the other side of the coin, TMJ problems can increase stress levels. That is why it is so important that people suffering from TMD get help. A dentist that has experience in diagnosing the causes of TMJ can determine the underlying issues and put together a treatment plan that reduces the symptoms and stress of TMD.