Cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone that helps you deal with the stresses of life, also has anti-inflammatory properties that handle allergic reactions. It deactivates the white blood cells that release the histamine that, in turn, causes inflammation. Pharmaceutical products that have cortisol-like properties are often used to treat this inflammation.
The National Institutes of Health describes cortisol as "a steroid hormone released from the adrenal gland in response to ACTH, a hormone from the pituitary gland in the brain." It is in the blood to some degree all the time but is released in higher amounts when the body is under stress. Cortisol, like such pharmaceutical equivalents as hydrocortisone, suppresses inflammation by deactivating basophils.
According to Mosby's Medical Dictionary, basophils are white blood cells that "produce histamine during inflammatory reactions." The histamine opens up capillaries to allow other white blood cells to fight off foreign invaders, such as allergens or pathogens. This, then, creates the swelling and redness associated with inflammation.
Basophils are also partly responsible for other inflammatory responses, including the runny nose and itchy hives of allergies.
Cortisol and basophils are in a sort of tug-of-war, with basophils' release of histamine producing inflammation and cortisol preventing it. Other substances known as antihistamines are even more powerful and faster acting than cortisol in this anti-inflammation struggle.
Dr. Spergel and associates, in the December 2008 issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, explains that these substances are related to epinephrine.
There are several pharmaceutical products, known as anti-inflammatory steroids, that mimic cortisol's activity. Dr. Schleimer, in the October 1982 issue of the Journal of Immunology, lists these in order of decreasing strength as: triamcinolone, dexamethasone, beta-methasone, prednisolone and hydrocortisone. Hydrocortisone is a commonly used over-the-counter anti-itch cream. The other products are by prescription only.
Dr. Spergel's study researched this relationship between cortisol and basophils, and showed that acute mental stress, the type that increases cortisol levels, inhibited the activity of basophils and "speculate[s] that the inhibition of basophil[s]...during the acute phase of mental stress might protect individuals from...effects of basophil...products, such as histamine."
Cortisol response to acute stress, such as final exams, is very different from that of chronic stress, such as unemployment. Acute stress brings high cortisol levels, but when the stress is longer term, cortisol actually returns to normal levels. However, there are many other negative effects of long-term stress on overall health, as recently noted in "Science Daily."
- Medline Plus: Definition of Cortisol
- The Free Dictionary: Definition of Basophil
- Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: Basophils and Acute Mental Stress
- Journal of Immunology: Inhibition of Basophil Histamine Release by Anti-inflammatory Steroids
- Science Daily: Manage Long-term Stress to Avoid Ill Health Effects
- Photo Credit allergy image by Allyson Ricketts from Fotolia.com
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