Universiteit Leiden

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Why stress could be good for you

Acute stress seems to have a surprisingly positive effect on our health. Researcher Erin Faught received an NWO veni grant to find out why that is and how we can use that knowledge to our advantage. For her lab research, she uses a remarkable small animal to learn more about our own stress levels.

Whether we like it or not, we're all under some kind of stress. And most people will not consider that a good thing. 'Stress has a negative reputation,' Erin Faught says. 'But it's not quite that simple.'

During her last couple of years of research at Leiden University she found the picture to be more complex. She was already funded for her research by both a Marie Curie fellowship and a post-doctoral fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. 'While mostly chronic stress does have that'While mostly chronic stress does have that negative effect,' she says, 'it seems that brief periods of stress can actually be beneficial for you.'

The benefits of the stress hormone

Central to this thesis is the so-called stress hormone cortisol. It's known to suppress the immune system and the anti-inflammatory response of the body. When you suffer from chronic stress and have a wound or an infection, fewer immune cells will migrate towards that part of the body as a result. But Faught discovered that after acute stress, say for a period of 24 hours, the opposite happens. 'You will actually have an bigger number of immune cells moving towards the wound.'

'If we understand this mechanism better, the knowledge can be used to our advantage'

Knowledge can help better understand the effects of stress

Faught received Veni funding to find out why that happens. 'If we understand this mechanism better, the knowledge can be used to our advantage', she says. ‘For example, while synthetic forms of these stress hormones are already used to treat inflammatory diseases, it would be great to find out whether we could also use them to boost the immune system. Additionally, a better understanding could help us to lower the negative effects of long-term stress.

Working with an unexpected animal

Over the next three years, the duration of the grant, Faught will often be found in the lab working with an unexpected animal: the zebrafish, a small freshwater fish. 'They have the exact same type of stress receptors as humans do,' Faught says. 'And the nice thing is that we can fluorescently tag the immune cells and monitor the effects of stress response in real time.' The researcher points out the experiment will be conducted on the larvae of the fish, because they are uniquely transparent

Through the experiments with the zebrafish, Faught hopes to get a better understanding of the complexities of the short-term stress response, where different stress receptors play different roles. 'We can genetically manipulate the fish larvae so they are missing some of the receptors,' she says. 'That can help us find out the role that these receptors play during stress.

With this grant Faught will be examining both acute and chronic stress, which, for a fish, means either stress for 5 minutes (acute) or intermittently over 6 hours (chronic).

Where is the tipping point?

Faught would also like to better determine where the tipping point is between the immune enhancing effects of acute stress and the negative effects of chronic stress. 'That's not a straightforward question’, the researcher says, ‘and it probably depends on which species or biological system we look at. But we are exploring where the switch is.'

Text: Samuel Hanegreefs
Image: Pexels

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