Stress from an icy swim could force the immune system to stand down.

Andy Jones • Tampa Tribune,

Stressing out the body may help chronic inflammation

  • Article by: Melissa Healy
  • Los Angeles Times
  • May 9, 2014 - 9:57 PM

The video of young Dutch adults lying barefoot and bare-chested in the snow, swimming in frozen ponds, and purposely hyperventilating looks more like “Jackass” than biomedical research. But the findings emerging from their efforts may suggest new treatments for millions of Americans suffering from autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis.

If you place the human body under enough stress, this new study finds, the immune system will stand down. And that, in turn, may calm the systemic inflammation and relieve the pain and disability that comes with a chronically overactive immune response. If the odd training that Dutch subjects undertook can be translated into a safe behavioral regimen for patients with autoimmune disorders, the result could be an alternative to the costly medicines now used to treat those diseases.

The new research challenges two long-held beliefs about human health: that the autonomic nervous system — often called the “involuntary nervous system” — is not subject to training in ways that would override its control of functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, perspiration and digestion; and that no behavioral intervention (short of, say, going to the doctor’s office and getting a vaccination) can influence the immune system to spin up or stand down.

In this experiment, reported in the journal PNAS, a small group of healthy Dutch subjects was taught to follow a bizarre regimen of cold exposure, meditation and breathing patterns that alternated between hyperventilation and breath-holding. They continued to practice the routine of extreme physical stressors in the days and hours before exposure to a toxin that reliably causes flu-like symptoms.

Compared with a control group, the subjects that followed the bizarre practices saw their epinephrine levels rise higher than those reported by bungee jumpers. Their production of the anti-inflammatory substance IL-10 shot up with exposure to an infused toxin, and the innate immune response was suppressed.

The Dutch researchers acknowledged that “it remains to be determined” whether patients with chronic autoimmune diseases could safely practice any version of these bizarre body-stressing routines. But if some behavioral interventions could bring temporary relief from symptoms, those suffering the effects of chronic inflammation could have new, non-pharmaceutical ways to ease their suffering.

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