Ben-Gurion University researchers have uncovered a link between high levels of stress and autoimmune disease.

The famous Sephardic Rabbi of Medieval Spain, Maimonides, who later on in life served as the personal physician to Saladin, once stated, “If emotional stress is maintained for a long period, one will become ill and it could even be fatal. Maintaining emotional health, during health and illness, must take precedence over any other regimen and in the cure of any patient.” Maimonides, as it turns out, was light years ahead of his contemporaries. Recently, a group of researchers from Ben-Gurion University have recently discovered that stress can lead to an autoimmune disease similar to multiple sclerosis, which is characterized by damage to the nervous system in the brain.

While examining mice, the BGU researchers Dr. Idan Harpaz and Professor Alon Monsonego, in conjunction with Professor Hagit Cohen, discovered that mice that experienced increased levels of stress suffered significant damage to the immune system mechanism that protects against inflammation. Additionally, mice who experienced chronic levels of stress had damage caused to the release of adequate levels of glucocorticiods (a steroid hormone that has the potentially to protect against autoimmune disease, yet at the same time can lead to worsening symptoms of autoimmune disease if one experiences chronic levels of stress). Interestingly, female mice were more susceptible to autoimmune disease than male mice were.

It has been known for quite some time that stress has been harmful to both ones emotional and physical health. The human body’s reaction to stress is characterized by the release of glucocorticiods, which help the body to deal with stressful situations. However, for those experiencing chronic levels of stress, this same hormone adversely affects the body’s immune system and thus makes it harder for the body to protect itself in the face of adversity.

The BGU researchers are also examining whether this research will be relevant to studying the effects that glucocorticiods have upon age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s. One of the BGU researchers who partook in this study has also worked on trying to develop a vaccine for Alzheimer’s. A report from the National Institute of Health claims that chronic exposure to glucocorticiods promotes Alzheimer’s disease.

The study was recently published in the European Journal of Immunology. Professor Monsonego and Harpaz are from the Shraga Segal Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the Faculty of Health Sciences. Monsonego is also a member of the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Desert. Professor Cohen is the head of the Anxiety and Stress Research Unit at Ben-Gurion University.

By Rachel Avraham, staff writer for United With Israel