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Acute Psychological Stress Boosts Skin Healing In Mice, Study Finds

Update Date: Aug 07, 2014 11:15 AM EDT

Short, acute psychological stress promoted healing in mouse models of three different types of skin irritations, according to a new study.

The healing was brought about by the anti-inflammatory effects of glucocorticoids - steroid hormones - produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress, scientists found in the study. 

"Under chronic stress, these same naturally-occurring steroids damage the protective functions of normal skin and inhibit wound healing, but during shorter intervals of stress, they are beneficial for inflammatory disorders and acute injury in both mice and humans," said senior investigator Peter Elias, MD, a UCSF professor of dermatology based at the San Francisco VA Medical Center (SFVAMC), in the press release. 

"We believe that our findings explain why this otherwise harmful component of the stress response has been preserved during human evolution," he said.

The three types of common skin irritations involved: irritant contact dermatitis, caused by exposure to an irritant such as a soap or solvent; acute allergic contact dermatitis, of the sort caused by poison ivy or poison oak; and atopic dermatitis, or eczema.

Scientists found that the stressed mice showed significantly reduced inflammation and faster healing in all three types of skin irritation. 

Scientists also found that when stressed mice were simultaneously given mifepristone, entire healing benefits of stress disappeared.  "This demonstrated the central role of internal steroids in providing these benefits," Elias added.

"Our ancestors did not have an arsenal of pharmaceutical steroids available to treat acute illnesses or injuries," Elias observed. "This safe, effective internal anti-inflammatory system provides just the correct amount of steroids to promote healing, over a time interval that is too short to cause harm."

Elias further added that while his research team did not study other kinds of inflammatory disorders, "the same benefits of psychological stress should accrue in any acute illness or injury."

The study has been published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

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