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How Getting Tattoos Is Like Weightlifting

Getting inked may be the flashy new way to ward off the common cold.

While a sleeve of tattoos may not get you points in a job interview, the ink could be ramping up your immune system, effectively reducing your risk for the common cold, according to new research from the University of Alabama. 

For the study, published in the American Journal of Human Biology, researchers approached volunteers at various tattoo parlors in Tuscaloosa and Leeds, Alabama. They surveyed the men and women, jotting down the number of tattoos they have and how long each tat took; they also obtained saliva samples from the customers before and after they were inked. 

The researchers brought their saliva samples back to the lab and measured the levels of immunoglobulin A and cortisol present in each. Study author Christopher Lynn explains in a press release: “Immunoglobulin A is a front line of defense against some of the common infections we encounter, like colds," while cortisol is a stress hormone that’s released to regulate and subdue immune responses (a.k.a. immunoglobulin A). 

As expected, the men and women receiving tattoos experienced a drop in immunoglobulin A. In a sort of domino effect, the stress of the tattoo needle caused the cortisol to rush to the site and dampen the presence of immunoglobulin A. Interestingly enough, the drop in immunoglobulin A was smaller among the men and women who receive tattoos on a fairly frequent basis (sorry, no figures on how often).

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

The researchers liken it to weightlifting. When your body is repeatedly put under stress—your muscles constantly tearing and repairing—it adapts and heightens its threshold required to get your muscles sore. When you’re getting tattooed on a fairly frequent basis, your body isn’t allowed to return to equilibrium from the stress, so it amplifies its base point that requires an immunological response. Your body is getting stronger in both situations—muscle- and strength-wise for the former and immunologically for the latter. 

This isn’t the case for one-time sessions, however. Receiving a single tattoo actually temporarily lowers your ability to fight infection.

"They don't just hurt while you get the tattoo, but they can exhaust you," Lynn says. "It's easier to get sick. You can catch a cold because your defenses are lowered from the stress of getting a tattoo."

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