New Study Shows Highly Anxious Partners Have Lower Immunity


Anxiety can cause you to have a lower immunity to disease.A new US study of 85 mostly white couples, has found that those who feel highly anxious about their romantic relationship can be hazardous to their health. This anxiety may actually result in lower immunity.

In the study, the  85 couples who were all married for an average of more than 12 years and with an average age of 39, were asked to provide saliva samples over 3 days and blood samples on two occasions. From these, the research team measured their levels of cortisol and T-cells. The study subjects were generally healthy and  were asked to complete questionnaires about their relationships, general anxiety levels and symptoms, and also about their marriage and their sleep quality.

Stress and Lower Immunity

The study was titled “Attachment Anxiety Is Linked to Alterations in Cortisol Production and Cellular Immunity” and was led by Lisa Jaremka, a postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State University College of Medicine, Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. Ms. Jaremka and other scientists from the University of Texas at Austin and Eastern Illinois University, found in their study that those who were often anxious about their close relationship with their spouses,  had higher levels of a key stress related hormone called cortisol, and lower levels of  a type of immune cells called T cells. This suggests that high anxiety may lower immunity.

Specifically, the study participants with higher levels of anxiety about the marriage and are excessively concerned about being rejected,  were found to have produced about 11 percent more cortisol than those with lower anxiety levels. In addition, those spouses with higher anxiety levels were found to have between 11 percent and 22 percent lower levels of T cells than those with less anxiety.  Those with higher levels of attachment anxiety are hypersensitive to signs that a person they are close to will leave them on a regular basis, according to the lead author.

T cells are a type of white blood cells called lymphocytes and they make up part of the body’s immune system. T cells is important in the immune system to fight off infections and diseases, according to the National Institute of Health.

Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone, and many experts believe it to be public health enemy number one, due to it being linked to harmful effects: lower immune function, interference with learning and memory, heart problems, sleep problems, depression, and bone density, increased weight gain, blood pressure and cholesterol. Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels have in past studies,  been found to lower life expectancy, increase risk for depression, and mental illness.

The new study finds a link or association between high relationship anxiety and the body’s stress and immune response, but cannot prove cause and effect.  The study findings suggest that attachment anxiety may affect health in a negative way and that highly anxious partners who are excessively concerned about being rejected and worry that they are not being loved by their partners,  will tend to get sick more often.

Lisa Jaremka, the lead researcher, suggests that stress can be reduced by yoga or other exercise or meditation as this will lower the body’s cortisol level.

The study was supported by an American Cancer Society grant, a Comprehensive Cancer Center at Ohio State fellowship and the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Lam’s Perspective:

Relaxing and lower immunityAnxiety and stress and are interconnected in the body. Anxiety generates stress, and one of the symptoms of stress is anxiety. Therefore, the finding that self reported and anxiety is correlated with cortisol, a marker for stress, makes a lot of sense. Many people in today’s fast paced society experience stress from a variety of sources at work, in the home and from environmental pollution. Those people who also suffer from anxiety of some sort have an extra stressor to contend with.

Anxiety also causes a chronic type of stress that burdens the body’s stress response system over a period of time. The body’s stress response, governed by the neuroendometabolic (NEM) stress response circuits, is designed to help the body remain remain functioning in the face of acute stressors, and is not equipped to handle long term stress. The continuous activation of the NEM stress response circuits causes its functional components to wear down and burn out, leading to dysfunctions in the immune system (resulting in a lower immunity), metabolism, neuroendocrine functions and cardiovascular systems, just to name a few.

The connection between anxiety, stress and these symptoms of stress means it is important to health to take measures to alleviate and reduce anxiety. Meditation, prayer and a proper work life balance are important tools to balance the body and mind, which can help decrease anxiety, stress and ultimately help improve health and longevity.

Source: News release dated 2/11/2013 from the Ohio State University.

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