Stressed out? You'll be better prepared for next time, Bucknell study says

Surviving stressful situations makes you better able to adapt to future stressors, according to a new Bucknell University biology study.

Biology professor Mark Haussman and nine of his current and former students separated Japanese quails from their pen mates for 20-minute periods to create stress, an experiment partially funded by the National Institutes of Health. The birds, which have hormones, stress biology and aging biology very similar to humans, showed stress-related cellular damage from being separated, the study shows.

The cells of birds that had prior experience with isolation were better able to defend themselves against the damage, according to Haussman and his students.

“We predicted that birds may be able to physiologically acclimate to the stressor, and thereby defend themselves on the cellular level,” Haussmann said. “The group with limited prior experience had reduced levels of oxidative stress when they faced the stressor a second time, and this was due to an increase in antioxidant defense. In other words, they had a defense system ready to go so that they could quickly respond to the stressor.”

Haussmann said the study’s findings help to explain why marathon runners and other high-level endurance athletes can overcome stress during intense exercise.

“In trained athletes, oxidative stress levels are low because the athletes’ cells have high levels of antioxidants on hand to combat free radical production and damage,” he said. 

The team examined the relationship between acute stress exposure, social isolation, and the production of hormones that help us respond to stress by mobilizing energy. In the study’s initial experiment, birds facing isolation had a spike in these glucocorticoids, but also oxidative stress.

“We saw that even during a short stress, there was a sharp increase in the production of oxidative damage,” Haussmann said.

The same is likely true of all types of acute stressors. Haussmann said, “Because we found that exposure to low levels of stressors allows cells to mount an antioxidant defense, remember that the next time you are stressed by an exam, a work deadline or a family get-together, you may just be working out your cells to save you from future damage.” 

The study was submitted to "Proceedings of the Royal Society B," the flagship biological research journal in the United Kingdom, on July 19 and published in the November issue.

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