Lymphocyte responses to stress in postpartum women: relationship to vagal tone.
Autonomic Nervous System
Although women spend their lives in various phases of the reproductive cycle, including menstrual, pregnancy, postpartum, lactation and menopause, few studies have examined immune responses to stress in women as a function of events associated with reproduction. The objective of this study was to evaluate differential effects of breastfeeding (n = 16), bottlefeeding (n = 10) and non-postpartum (n = 10) status on lymphocyte responses to stressful tasks (public speaking and mental arithmetic). To measure cellular immune responses, lymphocyte proliferation to plant lectins, poke weed mitogen (PWM) and phytohemagglutinin (PHA) were used. The autonomic measures, heart rate, vagal tone, blood pressure and the hormones of the HPA axis, ACTH and cortisol, were measured and their possible roles in mediating lymphocyte proliferation responses were examined. Recently parturient women who were breastfeeding or bottlefeeding had attenuated stress-induced change in lymphocyte responses to PWM compared with non-postpartum women, tested in the follicular phase of their cycle (P < 0.05). Also, lymphocyte responses to PHA were higher in the breastfeeding group compared with non-postpartum controls (P < 0.05). Regression analyses revealed that an index of cardiac vagal tone, but not other autonomic or endocrine measures, was positively predictive of lymphocyte proliferation to PWM. To summarize, these findings suggest that lactation and parturition can influence lymphocyte proliferation and that activity in the vagal system may influence lymphocyte responses to stress.