STRESS -Poison by slow motion.

A body under stress is a chemically altered body.  It is a body awash in hormones and other substances that are normally kept under tight control.  In the right proportions hormones such as catecholamines- including dopamine, epinephrine (adrenaline) glucacortoids such as cortisol and androgens such as dehydroepi-androsterone DHEA, keep our bodies healthy.  Too much or too little of these substances and they become a form of slow poison, leading to a staggering list of stress-related disorders.

The list now includes fatigue, indigestion, infections, irritability diarrhoea, eczema, headaches, constipation, psoriasis, muscle tension, peptic ulcers, allergies, neck and back pain, atherosclerosis, loss of appetite, nutritional deficiencies, high blood pressure, anexoria nervosa, premenstrual symptoms, diabetes, weight changes, sexual problems, arthritis, insomnia, psychological problems, cancer and depression.  Indeed no part of our lives remains untouched by stress.  The key to stress survival is allostasis-the body’s ability to achieve harmony through change.  Through allostasis, two adaptive pathways – the hypothalamic pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympotho-adrenal-medullary SAM axis which controls the sympathetic nervous system-are initiated.  Activation of these pathways leads to many neuro-endocrinological changes, such as raised hormones and proteins such as cortisol, epinephrine, calcitonin, gastrin and insulin, which can result in common fight or flight responses such as elevations in blood pressure, heart and sweat rate, coagulation time and blood glucose levels.

Of these cortisol and DHEA have been the most widely studied.  During episodes of acute stress, hormones such as cortisol at first protect us by activating the body’s defences through a complex chain of biochemical events.  When these same protective hormones are produced repeatedly or in excess, they create a gradual and steady cascade of harmful physiological changes.

As levels of cortisol rise in response to chronic stress, levels of another hormone DHEA drop.  The result can be hypothyriodism, heart disease, prostate and breast cancer, menstrual irregularities, osteoporosis and autoimmune disorders such as systemic lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Most of us think of stress as being emotional in origin.  Indeed most major assessments of life stress take into account events such as bereavement, marriage and unemployment.  But the body does not differentiate between these and other kinds of stress such as  physical, chemical, nutritional, traumatic and even psychospiritual.  In addition it is not just major stressors that cause problems.  There is evidence that high numbers of small daily hassles can also take their toll.

Whatever the source and intensity, the body responds to such attack by releasing a flood of stress hormones to help it maintain balance.  But a body that is constantly adjusting itself to stressors is subject to a great deal of wear and tear.  In all this overactivity, the allostatic systems become worn out, leading to an inability to either adapt or shut off (thus reducing levels of circulating stress hormones) after the resolution of a stressful event.  We nowo know that a body awash in stress hormones for years at a time is most likely to develop a range of diseases such as cardiovascular disease and loss of cognitive and physical functioning all of which modern physicians consider common with advancing age.  A lifetime of job stress, hiigh psychological demands and a lack of control, can accelerate the progression of atherosclerosis and heart failure.  Caring for a spouse or relative who is ill say, with Alzheimer’s can also lead to a greater risk of coronary heart disease.  Higher cortisol levels have been recorded in patients at the onset of a myocardial infarction.  Stress can also raise blood pressure, create harmful free radicals and raise levels of homocysteine, which damages cell linings and arterial walls.

A nine year study in Japan of 73,000 people showed that women who reported high mental stress were more than twice as likely to have a fatal stroke than those reporting low stress, and about two times as likely to have a deadly heart attack.  Men who reported high mental stress were about 1.5 times more likely to die from a heart attack, but did not show significantly increased deaths overall due to stroke.

Although the women who reported high stress were more sedentary, more likely to have a history of hypertension or diabetes, smoked more and were more likely to work full time, the researchers noted that even after adjusting for these factors, the association between stress and heart attacks in women and men and between stress and strokes in women, remained.

Stress can lead to poor eating habits, poor glucose control and obesity the cornerstones of many diseases in later life.  There is also an evolving belief that poor immunity as a result of chronic stress may also contribute to the development of cancer.  Retrospective studies have found an association between acute loss, bereavement, depression and subsequent development of several types of cancer, including colorectal and prostate cancers.  But it has been the development and progression of breast cancer in relation to life stress that has undergone the most study.  Women with advanced breast cancer have been found to have high

daytime levels of cortisol whereas, in general cortisol levels are high first thing in the morning, drop during the day and are at their lowest around midnight. Such women die on average a year sooner from their condition than those with normal cortisol levels.

Stress doe not just poison the physical body, it also has a profound effect on our mind and body.  Long term stress can also affect memory by destroying neurons in the hippocampus, the area of the brain than contributes to visual memory and context.  Poor dietary habits associated with stress may also contribute to a range of psychological problems such as depression and anxiety.  Stress can also contribute to diseases like Alzheimer’s.  Hormones such as cortisol increase during stress blocking the body’s ability to gain entry into brain cells.

Statistics and researched information taken from What Doctor’s Don’t Tell You Magazine.


Exercise – Of all the things we can do to lower stress levels and counteract the allostatic load, exercise along with a prudent diet seems to be the most effective.  Moderate exercise helps to improve sugar metabolism through the more effective use of insulin, and helps to end the vicious cycles of stress-eating, overindulgence in alcohol, cigarette smoking and other unhealthy habits.

Herbs – Consider adaptogenic herbs.  Adaptogens work on a cellular level to normalise the function of every cell, thereby stimulating the healing process to enhance the body’s normal defences, and helping the body to function normally.  The major herbs include Schisandra berries, astragalus, Indian ginseng gotukola, basil, dong quai, echinacea and perhaps the most known of them all ginseng.  If you are unsure of what to take it would be best to consult a qualified herbalist.

Take anti-stress supplements.  Nutrients commonly depleted by stress include the antioxidant vitamins C,E,and A as well as the B-complex and the minerals zinc, selenium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium.  Vitamin B6 (20-50) mg daily can alleviate depression and B12 (1000 mcg daily is necessary for a healthy nervous system.  Minerals like calcium 500-750 mg daily) and magnesium 350-500 mg daily.

Avoid alcohol and smoking.