Stress Increases Risk of Precancerous Infection

BioPsychoSocial_Health2.jpgWe all know stress can affect our health on a variety of different levels. Poor immune function is one result of chronic stress, most commonly leading to increased susceptibility or longer duration of the cold or other common, mild infections. Researchers have now shown that higher levels of chronic stress correlates with human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, a sexually transmitted disease that is the most common cause of cervical cancer.

Women should have Pap smears annually to evaluate for the presence of cellular changes associated with HPV infection. Even when these cellular changes are identified, most women with healthy immune function fight off the viral infection and will show resolution of the viral effect on follow-up examination. But in some women, the infection is not cleared and HPV sticks around in the cervical tissue, causing more cellular changes that ultimately can become cancerous.

Researchers questioned women with HPV-associated precancerous lesions and found that, when compared to women with no signs of HPV infection, they had higher levels of perceived stress in the month prior to the diagnosis of the lesion. Interestingly, they did not show higher levels of major life stressors, such as divorce or death of a family member. Instead, the presence of HPV correlated with a more constant, lower-level chronic stress.

Unlike most other cancers, cervical cancer is almost always associated with a viral infection. The immune system is responsible for recognizing and removing infections. The fact that most women manage to eliminate the virus, while some do not, points to variation in the immune response to HPV. Currently, what causes some women to be unable to fight off the virus is unknown, and this study provides insight into one risk factor.

Prolonged stress works through complex and poorly understood mechanisms to exert effects on almost every body system. Increased levels of cortisol and epinephrine, both hormones related to stress, result in high blood pressure and changes in cognitive function, metabolism and immune function, among other effects. Elevated levels of stress have also been linked to cancer in general. In this study, we have yet more proof of the effects of psychological health on physical disease.

Lindsey Kay, MD

Lindsey Kay, MD, is a medical doctor with training in pathology, and an avid writer. During his training, he worked on pre-clinical and clinical trials in a variety of laboratories related to alcohol effects on the brain, cancer diagnosis, and alternative medicine.
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