Tattooing to "Toughen up" Immune System Study
12:52 PM
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Photo of Ashley Silversides of Painted Lady Fitness. A perfect example of a healthy tattooed body.

Can multiple tattoos strengthen your immune system?

Researchers at the University of Alabama asked this very question and published an interesting article on their study entitled, "Tattooing to "Toughen up": Tattoo experience and secretory immunoglobulin A."

In the latest edition of the American Journal of Human Biology, Christopher D. Lynn, Johnna T. Dominguez and Jason A. Decaro discuss their "inoculation hypothesis," looking into whether getting multiple tattoos can inoculate our immune systems, potentially making us stronger in fighting common infections like a cold.

Read a preview of the article here. You can also "rent" it for $6 to read the entire study (within 48 hours). (sexy name!) breaks down the study in layman's terms. It notes that, receiving a single tattoo can temporarily lower our resistance due to the stress on the body; however, multiple tattoo sessions may have the opposite effect:

The body's response to tattooing is akin to that experienced from exercising in the gym when you're out of shape, said Lynn. Initially, muscles become sore, but if you continue, the soreness fades following subsequent workouts. "After the stress response, your body returns to an equilibrium," Lynn said. "However, if you continue to stress your body over and over again, instead of returning to the same set point, it adjusts its internal set points and moves higher."
To test their hypothesis, the researchers sought volunteers at tattoo shops in Tuscaloosa and Leeds, Alabama, obtaining information on the number of tattoos they have and the time involved in getting them. They then obtained saliva samples from the volunteers, both before and after their tattoo sessions. The samples were analyzed, measuring levels of immunoglobulin A, "an antibody that lines portions of our gastrointestinal and respiratory systems, and cortisol, a stress hormone known to suppress immune response."

Here's what they found:

Levels of immunoglobulin A dropped significantly in those receiving initial tattoos, as would be expected because of the immunosuppressant effects of cortisol, responding to the stress of tattooing. But the immunoglobulin A decrease was less so among those receiving tattoos more frequently, Lynn said.

"People with more tattoo experience have a statistically smaller decrease in immunoglobulin A from before to after," said Lynn.

When receiving a tattoo, the body mobilizes immunological agents to fight possible infections at the site of the new tattoo, Lynn said.

And, as with the weightlifter, the body that is tattooed repeatedly ratchets up the threshold that would necessitate an immunological response. They, too, the research indicates, are getting stronger, immunologically.


According to the abstract of the journal article, the conclusions are as follows: "Our data suggest that the body habituates over time to the tattooing stressor. It is possible that individuals with healthy immune systems heal faster, making them more likely to get multiple tattoos."

So I guess the next time someone asks why I have all these tattoos on my body, I'll just tell them I'm on a health kick!

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