Social friction tied to inflammation
Negative interactions with others or stressful competition for another’s attention may have biological effects
By Nathan Seppa
Web edition : Monday, January 23rd, 2012
Competing in vain for the attention of someone special or fretting over a mid-term exam may not be healthy. Such stress seems to boost a person’s supply of two proteins that cause inflammation, researchers report January 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
These inflammatory triggers have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and depression. The new results add to a growing body of research that links social stress with biological risks.
“We wanted to see how mental states such as optimism, or social relationships such as competition, get under the skin,” says study coauthor Shelley Taylor, a social neuroscientist at the UCLA School of Medicine. She and her colleagues looked at the relationship between day-to-day stress and two proteins that trigger inflammation in the body, called pro-inflammatory cytokines.
The link between short-term stress and revved-up inflammation could have an evolutionary basis, suggests Nicolas Rohleder, a psychologist at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., who wasn’t part of the study team. “As early humans, we had to fight for our lives — fight or flight,” he says. Inflammation has a useful short-term role in fending off pathogens, so triggering inflammation as a response to stress may have been a way the body fended off infections caused by those encounters, which often resulted in some form of injury, he says.