New Evidence on the Link Between Asthma and Stress
Stress adversely affects our health in a number of ways. Research has long shown that there is some relationship between stress and asthma. Much of the scientific thinking has focused on the idea that stress likely exacerbates asthma symptoms.
However, a $2.5 million long-term study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, lead by Dr. William Busse, is exploring the idea that asthma may also exacerbate stress. As their researchers have noted, it is indeed stressful to feel as though you cannot breathe. To gain a better understanding of the association between asthma and stress, the scientists are looking both at how asthma affects the brain and at how stress affects the lungs.
First, they are inducing asthmatic events in patients and then analyzing the communication from the lungs to the brain using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology. By investigating which parts of the brain are activated in response to asthma symptoms, the researchers may be able to tell whether the experience of asthma leads to a stress response.
Observing how stress may impact asthma is a more challenging task. To do so, Dr. Busse and his colleagues are placing people under stress, then inducing an asthma attack and monitoring the details of that attack.
While the study has not been completed yet, Dr. Busse suspects that what the data will show is that there is two-way communication between the lungs and the brain and that there is therefore a feedback loop that can lead to both more stress and more asthma symptoms. In other words, increased stress may exacerbate asthma symptoms, which may in turn enhance stress, and the cycle continues.
An interesting idea that Dr. Busse has is that the negative nature of the feedback between the lungs and the brain could be combatted through both medication and non-medication strategies. For instance, understanding the specific pathways and molecules involved in lung-brain communication can help with the development of medications that block problematic signaling. However, he also suggests that techniques like mindfulness and meditation may offer promising ways to modify the circuits involved in this communication.
Regardless of the specific findings of this large study, it is likely that the insights will help us better understand the link between asthma and stress. They should also inform the way we approach this link so that people under stress are less likely to experience worsening asthma symptoms and those with bad asthma are able to mitigate any potential stress responses.