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Understanding disease processes has shifted in past decades from a biomedical to biopsychosocial model accounting not only for biological factors involved in disease, but psychological and social factors as well. A key element in the biopsychosocial approach is stress, and its negative effects on the body. This project focuses on cortisol, a stress hormone, and the harmful effects that it can have in times of chronic stress, with a focus on the immune system. AIDS and leukemia are used as examples of diseases that are particularly sensitive to increased cortisol levels, and individuals with these diseases are at the highest risk for negative health consequences. A putative mechanism by which excess amounts of cortisol could be tempered or eliminated is through sensory activation of oxytocin, or the “bonding hormone.” The role of oxytocin is explored in the suppression of cortisol production. If oxytocin can buffer against the harmful effects of cortisol then situations in which oxytocin may be released, such as times of social support and social bonding, should be considered integral to a biopsychosocial approach to treatment. The release of oxytocin has also been measured during human-animal bonds. The project proposes a study of the relationships between therapy dogs and hospitalized individuals to uncover the potential effects that such contact may have on oxytocin, cortisol, and immune function. After examining the evidence of previous studies, the project concludes that forming a bond with an animal protects against the harmful effects of stress, thus improving the individual’s health as well as quality of life.
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Wright, Christina D., "Social Support and Stress Reduction in Health and Disease: Why Playing with Your Pet Can Be Good for Your Health" (2011). Senior Projects Spring 2011. 103.