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Psychological Stress in Children: Effects on the Immune Response

By Roberta Attanasio

Stress is part of life — but while a little bit of it (good stress) may keep us active and alert, and sometimes even motivate us, the long-term type (bad stress) can have negative effects on our health.  Elevated blood pressure and heart disease are just some examples of the so-called “stress-related diseases”.  In addition to good stress and bad stress, there is another type of stress — toxic stress.

Professor Pat Levitt defines toxic stress as “a term used by psychologists and developmental neurobiologists to describe the kinds of experiences, particularly in childhood, that can affect brain architecture and brain chemistry. They typically are experiences that are bad for an individual during development such as severe abuse. Toxic stress has been defined also in terms of violence, other sorts of experience that a child can have that can be very powerful in a negative way on the brain.”

Image credit: deviantART, licensed under CC BY-ND 3.0.

However, what makes stress toxic or not is — as for other types of stress — the way we respond to it.  Indeed, there are three kinds of responses to stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic. These terms refer to the stress response and its effects on the body, not to the stressful event or experience itself. Then, a toxic stress response can occur “when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.”

Now, results from a study published in the Journal of Immunology (March 1, 2014), “Psychological Stress in Children May Alter the Immune Response“, show that psychological stress in children may contribute to an imbalance in the immune response, and not only — it can also contribute to a pathological effect on the cells that produce insulin, thus potentially leading to the development of type-1 diabetes.

The researchers examined the association between high psychological stress in the family and the immune response of 5-year old children. The study was carried out using immune cells obtained from the blood of 26 high-stressed children and 52 children without high stress within the family.  High psychological stress was defined as being exposed to stressors in three or four domains — serious life events, parenting stress, lack of social support, and parental worries.

Children in high-stress families showed signs of immunosuppression, had high levels of cortisol (a biological marker of stress), and had low levels of C-peptide — low levels of this peptide indicate poor functioning of the cells that produce insulin. In addition, these children had immune markers related to autoimmune responses, which indicate the immune system may be causing damage to healthy tissues.

Analysis of the background variable “single parent” showed that high-stressed children are likely to live with a single parent, compared with children in the control groups. On the basis of this result, the researchers speculate that children living with a single parent are more exposed to psychological stress — or less protected from it — than children living with more than one caregiver.

Perhaps, the effects on the immune system should be added to those already considered to be part of the toxic stress response.

For an updated view of the toxic stress response, head here.


  • ics100190

    WHAT Is “stress”? I think there is not a way to truly identify stress as a contributing factor because it cannot be quantified universally for the entire population. One child could have no alterations in behavior and immune response to a stressor while another reacts in a polar opposite fashion. The response that is generated is dependent on the individual. For those who experience a negative response, increased heart rate, and subsequently a rise in the level of glucose circulating. Type 1 diabetes is insulin dependent for the maintenance of elevated levels of glucose. One response to stress the “fight or flight” option causes this rise in glucose. When a child is exposed to conditions that could trigger such responses, they are putting themselves at risk. I would like to better understand how researchers are quantifying stress and how they are observing glucose levels and their role in children developing type 1 diabetes.

  • tbrown110

    This article makes a striking statement detailing how stress can come into play in a child’s immune system. It is logical seeing as toxic stress on a child without a support system can negatively affect the development of the brain and other organ systems which could include the lymphatic system. While this is logical more can be done to solidify the study. An issue with the study is that serious life events, parenting stress, lack of social support, and parental worries are arbitrary terms. Where one individual would classify financial struggles as parental worries or parenting stress another could say that deciding whether to enroll their child in public or private school is a parental worry, or should they feed them organic food or not. Thus making extrapolating the data into real world application erroneous. As dpitts5 stated the number of children should be increased. The increase in the number to even out the number of high-stressed children to children without stress to make the study more accurate.

  • Christine

    Before reading this I knew that there was good stress and bad stress that people could have. I knew that bad stress could cause a negative affect on the immune system but I did not know it was tied to type-1 diabetes.In thinking about this, I could see why they think bad stress could cause diabetes because when stress occur our blood sugar rises in order to supply our body energy when the fight-or flight response come in because our body demands energy during that time.This could lead to diabetes in that the cells might become resistance to insulin during a response to stress or because of build up of insulin that causes the pancreas to become fatigued from trying to produce enough insulin, leading to hyperglycemia, which in turn can lead to diabetes. In people that have diabetes their flight or fight response does not function and is not supply correctly with the energy needed to respond in the correct way.
    What I do not completely agree with is their theory that high-stressed children are likely to live with single parent then with both. Shouldn’t how children are raise in general and what other factors that surround them that might cause stress be taken into account as well? .Children that have parents going through a divorce or fighting all the time could experience the same level of stress as that of a child whose living with a single parent. There should also be taken into account that home is not the only environment children encountered, some children find abuse in school or childcare that could could cause them to have stress whether they live with a single parent or not.

  • Z. Haqqani

    While it may not be the only cause, the high levels of cortisol in these patients seem to be a big factor in causing their immune suppression. If we can’t take the children out of the stressful environments they live in, maybe we can attack the elevated cortisol levels. On his TV show, Dr. Oz always talks about stress, as well as cortisol, its effects on the body, and effective ways to treat it. The discovery that stress can lead to type-1 diabetes in some people just gives us more of a reason to combat it. There are simple ways to reduce cortisol levels just by changing our daily habits (exercising,sleeping longer/deeper, reducing caffeine, etc.) ; although, for these children the levels may be so great that these simple changes can’t reduce them. In this case, maybe it would be better to treat them with some of the drugs that are available – which I would only recommend to those in the worst of stressful environments. By treating them early on, the children may not have to suffer some of the more destructive consequences of stress that will haunt them later in life.

  • Samantha Deochand

    When we learn about the immune system, we learn about its role in protecting the body against extracellular and intracellular infection. However, we never really learn about the immune system’s role in other matters. For instance, the paper states that Th2 plays a role in protecting pancreatic beta cells from destruction. On a molecular level, what method of destruction is it protecting the beta cells from and how does this protection occur?

  • Tylah Hankerson

    I am honestly not surprised to hear that stress in children can have a negative effect on the immune system. Stress also affects adults negatively. Too much stress in an adult can lead to severe disease and can even cause latent diseases like herpes simplex 1 to reactivate. The environment a child is raised in has a significant impact on his or her adult life. The development of the immune system is most crucial during the childhood years. At first, I was surprised to hear that exposing children to high stress could lead to them developing type 1 diabetes. I expected that it could affect the child mentally and that could lead to being immunosuppressed. After I sat down and thought about it, I can see how toxic stress could lead to type 1 diabetes. I have learned about insulin, epinephrine (adrenaline), glucose storage, rest and digest/fight or flight. If a child is always in a stressful situation where he or she is scared they will get physically abused, they are always producing epinephrine. They would always be stuck in that fight or flight mode which would affect insulin and glucose storage. I think this would affect the cells ability to produce insulin and thus leading to the development of type 1 diabetes. I recently read that childhood poverty could lead to being immunosuppressed as adults. The study never mentioned diabetes but I think these two studies are related. Most children in high stress situations are from single parent homes which are more likely to be living in poverty and as a result of this, they have a higher chance of being immunosuppressed as adults. Children who are living in poverty are also more likely to suffer from abuse or more stressful situations which as the article states, leads to type 1 diabetes. It is really interesting how the environment of a child can directly impact their health as adults. People should pay more attention to the environment they raise their children in; the government should also pay more attention to the environment because these children won’t just go away with time, their health will affect more than just them. It will affect the job market, economy, and health care. Problems that could affect everyone in the future can be stopped now.

    • M Brown

      I don’t consider it a fair claim to say that most children in high stress situations are from single parent homes. I do however agree with your next statement in that stress does come as a result of one’s environment. Environmental issues do not arise solely from being in a single parent home. And being in a single parent home does not imply elevated stress levels. As I had previously mentioned, not everyone deals with stress similarly. Things that are problematic in one setting may not be problematic in another. All that being said, there are also several two parent homes with elevated stress levels in every individual in the home for several different reasons.

      • Csom1

        I agree that just because a child grows up with a single parent that doesn’t always mean high stress is guaranteed for the child. However it is fair to say that the likelihood that a single parent may address high stress situations differently than dual parents would. The environments around our children during critical growth periods are often overlooked because of natural stressor within our own adult lives. Having a child to raise is a stressor on its own. Not only must a parent provide basic needs such as food and shelter but they must also be take care of themselves. A dual parent system is likely to take the stress off of the other parent and possibly create a more hospitable environment. Single parents may not always have this luxury and this extra stress to provide for one’s self and their offspring may trickle down to a less than ideal environment leading to stress for the child.

  • dpitts5

    I was always told that too much stress is bad for you, but I didn’t know exactly what it’s negative effects were until now. It really shocked me when I read that psychological stress in children could lead to diabetes type 1. Is this only true for kids or can adults suffer from psychological stress ultimately causing diabetes? From my understanding of the experiment conducted I feel it lacks validity. The reason is because three of the four domains in which they use to classify high psychological stress seem to be above the comprehension of a five year old. They state exposure to three of these domains will indicates high psychological stress, however I beg to differ. The only domain I can understand that a five year old might have some recognition of is if their caregiver is suffering from a serious life event such as abuse. All the other domains a five year old would most likely be completely oblivious to therefore not causing any stress good or bad. I think this experiment needs more work on the basis of its domains that classifies high psychological stress. There also needs to be an increase in sample size for this experiment to have true validity.

    • theglobalfool

      The investigators examined “psychological stress in the family” and talk of “children in high-stress families” – they did not base their study on the stress as recognized by children. The post links to the original paper – you can find there details of the statistical analysis that was carried out. Did you look at the data and the related statistical analysis before deciding that “There also needs to be an increase in sample size for this experiment to have true validity”?

      • dpitts5

        I guess I misinterpreted the article but I didn’t think there was any correlation between a family who suffered from psychological stress and a 5 year old being immunosuppressed, having low levels of c-peptide, or high levels of cortisol. I didn’t think there was any correlation because a 5 year all would be oblivious to all the domains that supports the basis of the experiment. So I don’t believe you can say a child is immunosuppressed because he or she lives in an environment where people suffer from psychological stress. Could there not be other factors that cause the child to be immunosuppressed? As far as validity goes I feel you need to have a large population in order for you to say this is the cause of something without a doubt. Just because 26 five year old kids out of the millions that live on earth were immunosurpressed doesn’t mean living in an environment where psychological stress is present was the cause and the only cause does it?

        • tbrown110

          There are infinite amounts of environmental and genetic factors that could assist or be the main cause of a child’s weakened immune system. An example would be from a previous post on immunitytales.com titled Early Childhood Poverty Holds the Immune System’s Hand. The post stated how poverty helped lead to a weakened immune system and where chronic disease could develop later in life. An individual living in poverty does not necessarily dictate that they live life as a high-stress child.

  • M Brown

    This article has several points of concern to me. The overall concept of “stressed” children being prone to several stress related diseases is probable, however, other factors should be taken into account as well. I believe that the biggest factor that should have been addressed was familial history and their susceptibility to stress induced health risks. Although the children of the study experience stress, all children do. Coping mechanisms and overall outlook on life plays a significant role in how people chose to deal with stress and what causes them stress. Moreover,I’m sure many of the families of the children that were “stressed” come from families with health issues. Thus it may not be the stress that contributed to stress related disease, but the genetics of the family. It would also be beneficial to detail the overall health of the child.

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