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Carrington College Blog

Researchers discover link between mental stress and physical health

August 4, 2014

Stress levels increase white blood cell counts.Scientists have long been aware of the fact that elevated stress levels pose serious health risks to the human body. However, past attempts to characterize exactly how stress hurts individual well-being have left medical professionals scratching their heads. Stress was often warned against in a very general way, as something that was harmful for unknown reasons. Now, emerging research from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School is giving health care professionals a clearer idea of at least one of the ways that stress affects the body.Those receiving a medical assisting education will benefit greatly from this new information.

Stress levels increase white blood cell count

The research examined the white blood cell counts of 29 employees at the hospital’s intensive care unit.2 These particular employees were chosen because the ICU is known to be a very high-stress environment. After one week, the researchers found that white blood cell counts were significantly higher in on-duty workers than in those that were off-duty. This indicates a connection between elevated stress levels and the body’s production of what are known as inflammatory leukocytes, a particular variety of white blood cell.

Normally, inflammatory leukocytes are the body’s defense system against infection and disease. However, when too many are produced, they contribute to a disease known as atherosclerosis.3 This condition is characterized by the buildup of plaque in the arteries, the major blood vessels of the body’s circulatory system. The accumulation of plaque restricts blood flow, thus resulting in decreased circulation and hypertension. Once high levels of inflammatory leukocytes are introduced, the plaque that has built up in the arteries risks breaking off and traveling to other parts of the body. Plaque clumps have been known to block blood vessels in the brain, causing a stroke, as well as those in the heart, resulting in a heart attack.4 As such, maintaining stress levels is extremely important to preventing these serious conditions.

Further modeling on mice

The results of the human study are interesting, but certainly not conclusive. While increased stress levels seemed to go hand in hand with an elevated white blood cell count, the study is not able to show that stress is what caused the biological response. In order to more fully understand the close relationship between stress and the body’s production of white blood cells, the researchers conducted further experiments on mice. These experiments exposed the animals to a variety of stressors including cage tilting and isolation. The researchers then measured the exact biological processes that were stimulated.5

It turns out that chronic stress induced the nerve fibers to release noradrenaline into the bloodstream.6 This neurotransmitter signals the bone marrow to increase production of hematopoietic stem cells. These unique cells are capable of becoming any kind of blood cell, from red blood cells to platelets. However, in the case of high stress levels, the hematopoietic stem cells developed into white blood cells that then went on to cause plaque buildup that threatened to develop into a heart attack and stroke.

Maintaining stress levels

In order to protect against the diseases associated with plaque buildup in the arteries, stress maintenance is important. Now that the interaction between psychological stress and the accompanying physical harm to the body is better understood, health care professionals can point out to their patients the steps they need to take to protect the health of their circulatory system. Here are a few methods that have been proven to reduce stress:

Massage therapy: There are a number of known benefits to massage therapy outside of stress relief, such as increased circulation and decreased muscle soreness.7 However, receiving a massage is also a great opportunity to relax and de-stress. Visiting a certified massage therapist on a regular basis gives your body and mind the opportunity to recharge and reset.

Meditation: Yoga, tai chi and other forms of meditation provide stress relief by giving you the mental space to clear away the things that are weighing on you. Many have found great success with an early morning yoga practice that allows them to empty their minds. Meditation is one of the stress relief methods that requires the most practice and continuous training. Keep yourself focused and dedicated and in time you will start to reap the benefits.

Pick up a sport or hobby: Not all stress release has to be static. Sports and other active hobbies are often very effective ways of managing stress. Some people find the most stress relief while exerting themselves in the gym or on the field. This form of active de-stressing also has the added bonus of being a great opportunity to exercise more. Physical activity is the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle. Thus, if you are able to de-stress while staying active, the benefits will be doubled.

Understanding the exact link between mental stress and physical health is a huge step forward for the heath care profession. Employing appropriate stress relief tactics will lower your risk of developing a health condition associated with elevated white blood cell counts.

If you’re interested in the medical field and would like to learn more, consider starting a career as a medical assistant.

1“Study Uncovers how Stress can Kill,” Cheri Cheng, Counsel & Heal, 25 June 2014,

2“Study Uncovers how Stress can Kill,” Cheri Cheng, Counsel & Heal, 25 June 2014,

3“What is Atherosclerosis?” National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, 1 July 2011,

4“Chronic variable stress activates hematopoietic stem cells,” Timo Heidt, et al., Nature Medicine, 22 June 2014,

5“Chronic variable stress activates hematopoietic stem cells,” Timo Heidt, et al., Nature Medicine, 22 June 2014,

6“Chronic variable stress activates hematopoietic stem cells,” Timo Heidt, et al., Nature Medicine, 22 June 2014,

7“Massage Therapy Restores Peripheral Vascular Function following Exertion” Nina C. Franklin, Mohamed M. Ali, Austin T. Robinson, Edita Norkeviciute, Shane A. Phillips. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 2014;

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