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Boffins: Stress of family Xmas can cause fatal diseases

'Fight/flight' reaction misplaced vs average relatives

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New research by biologists indicates that the stress of festive seasons spent with the family can lead to serious health problems.

In essence, according to the latest study, stress response in the nervous system is actually designed for very serious situations such as battling Neanderthals or fleeing sabre-toothed tigers. For coping with an annoying relative it's overkill, and tends - among other problems - to overstimulate the immune system and cause autoimmune disorders such as lupus, arthritis and eczema.

"In true fight or flight situations, stress can be a lifesaver," says John Wherry, deputy editor of the Journal of Leukocyte Biology. "Understanding how the neurological response to the stress of everyday events such as seeing your family around the holidays impacts immune responses should provide opportunities for new therapies."

Robert E Cone of the Connecticut Uni health centre agrees, having carried out experiments in which mice had their nervous systems chemically disconnected from their immune systems. Other control mice were left with nervous linkages still hooked up, such that stress could still cause mess.

Then the whole group of mice were exposed to "conditions known to cause an autoimmune disease similar to multiple sclerosis in humans". Sure enough the the mice whose nerous systems could no longer affect their immune responses didn't develop the disorder, while the control group did.

"We show for the first time that the nervous system controls the central immune police cells, called regulatory T cells," says Cone, in whose lab the work was done. "This further shows that it is imperative to concentrate on the neuro-immune interactions and to understand how these two different systems, the immune and nervous systems, interact."

For now, though, the great thing is to remember over the coming festive season that in fact the various horrors about to befall us aren't ones that can be dealt with by running away and hiding nor bludgeoning them repeatedly with a surplus thighbone etc in primitive-human style.

Down that road - assuming that impulses are contained by gritted teeth, so avoiding spousal condemnation and/or criminal charges - lies early arthritis or a troubling rash. So stay cool and reflect that you at least, even if the same can't be said of everyone in your extended clan or tribe, are a sophisticated and civilised human being with little need to resolve conflict situations physically.

The new mouse-bothering research can be read here by subscribers to the Journal of Leukocyte Biology. ®

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