PTSD’s Impact on Immune System

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is an anxiety disorder caused by a traumatic event, such as a car crash, combat, sexual assault, or house fire. Furthermore, according to Web MD PTSD can be developed after experiencing or witnessing “an event that causes intense fear, helplessness, or horror.” Signs and symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of reliving the traumatic event, avoidance of situations that trigger memories of the event, a loss of interest in activities, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and being easily startled.

PTSD is also related with inflammatory-related medical conditions, according to a literature review. The paper reviewed previously conducted studies that explored the immune functions in a variety of populations with PTSD. The researchers found that people with chronic PTSD were more likely to have excessive amounts of inflammation and high levels of inflammatory cytokines.

According to The Cleveland Clinic’s website inflammation is “a process by which the body’s white blood cells and chemicals protect us from infection and foreign substances such as bacteria and viruses.” In addition to redness, swelling, and joint pain, inflammation can also be accompanied by flu-like symptoms. While inflammation is a part of the body’s immune response, excessive inflammation is an indication that the body’s immune system is not regulated sufficiently.

The authors of the article published in Perspectives in Psychiatric Care report that excessive inflammation may be due in part to an insufficient regulation by cortisol. Traumatic events and other stressors lead to higher levels of cortisol and other chemicals that aid individuals respond to threatening situations. Unfortunately, the excessive fluctuation of cortisol also causes a reduction in the immune system’s ability to fight off viruses and other infections that cause illnesses. This is significant because individuals who suffer from PTSD frequently relive the trauma they experienced through flashbacks and nightmares, which creates additional stress, causing cortisol to fluctuate accordingly, thus weakening their immune systems even more.

The journal article also mentions that excessive inflammation produced by the immune system may contribute to declining health in people with PTSD and that treating PTSD may reduce these health risks. Therefore, not only do psychotherapy and psychiatric medications help alleviate the signs and symptoms of PTSD, but they also contribute to the improvement and prevention of physical illness and could possibly increase the longevity of PTSD sufferers. Other methods of decreasing anxiety, including social support, meditation, and exercise have been found to decrease anxiety disorders and depression.

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