Stress is a normal part of life, but if left unmanaged it can contribute to health problems including coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, chest pains, or irregular heartbeats. Stress triggers our bodies to make a surplus of disease-fighting white blood cells. That in turn can boost inflammation in the arteries of people with a condition called atherosclerosis, where the artery walls are thickened by a buildup of plaque.

Scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School looked at how stress affected the white blood cell counts of 29 medical workers in a hospital’s intensive care unit after 1 week. This workplace was chosen because of its fast-paced nature, where staff regularly have to make life-or-death decisions.

The authors of the study, published in Nature Medicine, report that when they compared blood samples taken from the volunteers during work to samples taken when off-duty, the white blood cell count was higher in the work samples.

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