This image depicts Dr. Hans Seleye “The Father of Stress” next to images of the triad condition which can be produced by over exposure to any stress. The symptoms were
A) the enlargement of the adrenal gland
B) the shrinking of the Thymus,
C) the ulceration of the upper gastrointestinal tract.
I have at this point outlined the importance of stress and the response in the body as a developmental stimulus allowing us to become more able to meet the challenges of our life. I have also described how chronic stress can have a degenerative effect on the body over time. I have shown how this can potentially result in the emergence of some, if not most, disease. I am now going to outline in more detail how this emergence of disease through stress can happen, why it may be that so many common diseases are stress related, and even give an example of a specific disease state which is strongly influenced by an overexposure of general stress over time.
Let’s draw a picture of how this could occur in everyday life.
For example, let’s say someone has a normal routine in their life, including the physical, mental, nutritional, emotional, and toxic challenges. They managed to achieve a good balance, but then a dramatic challenge occurred, like moving to Alaska in the winter.
If someone is chronically cold, this will require a greater need for warming the body relative to other necessary functions. A new balanced state of energy demand and use will result. Ideally, this person would accomplish that balance by achieving an increase in the ability to warm the body. They would increase their intake and use of energy without needing to reduce the energy being used by other important bodily functions. Due to the complex interconnectivity of the body, this increased need for warming the body also increases the need for digestion, nutrient delivery, and acquiring a diet more rich in nutrients in a more demanding environment. If we are successful, we will develop greater strength and intelligence. This nearly universal increase of function to better meet the challenges present is the positive response to stress.
What makes the chronic stress state occur is when the universal increase does not reach the needed level to meet the new demand.
Perhaps the lifestyle of the individual was not so well balanced or they just weren’t resistant enough to adapt to the new challenge. In the case of an adaptive response to chronic stress, the energy balance will be accomplished by reducing the function of other systems in order to allow the warming of the body to occur. In the case of the chronically stressed individual exposed to cold, even body temperature (which is the priority action) will be maintained at a minimum. This means they may not even be able to maintain an optimal body temperature, just the minimum necessary to allow the continued minimum possible operation of the other systems. At this point, you can see how adding any new challenge would have potentially catastrophic effects.
In the chronic stress state, the response to stress is to diminish the function of all systems.
This will reduce the ability to meet future challenges that ask for any increase demand on any system. Perhaps counter intuitively, this will result in a further waste of energy. As mentioned before in the series on stress, the maintenance of the body’s health is being sacrificed. These sacrifices often include digestion and efficient use of nutrients so there is less energy being efficiently provided. To make matters worse, the body will also be more prone to tissue damage, infection, and other physical dysfunctions, requiring that more energy be directed toward cleanup and maintenance rather than positive development. So in the case above, lets say the individual is exposed to a bacteria which would normally be easily resisted by the immune system and instead it is able to take hold in the lungs and causes bronchitis. If the individual is unable to fully recover and the bacteria remains, it may re-emerge as pneumonia, a potentially fatal condition. This is an image of how the chronic stress state is the picture of a system that is in decline: the end result is ultimate exhaustion. As energy becomes poor, the cells, and thus the organs, begin to fail. If energy is lost completely, then so is life. This describes the role stress plays over time in reaching death.
Any tissue under local stress has some similar responses. Specific chemicals are produced which result in a cascade of reactions triggering the general stress response. The cell under these conditions will swell and produce proteins which thicken the connective tissue. The connective and organ tissue cells themselves will begin to multiply. This general thickening of the tissues under prolonged stress is a “fibrotic” adaptation.
While this is a useful mechanism for forming callouses and barriers to infection after a burn or cut, it is also a common feature of the organs responsible for dysfunction in degenerative diseases.
The connective proteins produced during this process will eventually accumulate calcium. The stressed cells also accumulated calcium and over time begin to atrophy. This thickening and calcification is a development of chronic stress and is the common feature in the arteries of individuals with heart disease before plaque begins to accumulate. The same feature is present in the nerve cells of many degenerative nerve diseases. As well as a feature in many breasts which are “at risk” for cancerous development. Another example of stress opening up the opportunity for disease is the fact that it is common for the end of an amputated limb to develop cancerous tumors where it is constantly irritated by the prosthetic is assumed to be due to the local irritation of the tissue. The basic reason for the cells to adapt in this way is their inability to meet the energy demand of the challenge they are presented. This is exemplified very simply by how effective granulated sugar applied to a wound is at deterring infection and aiding healing with very little scarring (3,4). So remember, we are looking at stress as any challenge: mental, physical, emotional, nutritional, or toxic. Also, the location of the symptomatic y due to the degenerative development of chronic stress exposure is not always specific to the system receiving the stress.
The symptoms of disease which may result, occur within the weakest links of the body’s defenses.
Here is where our “foundation for resistance” described in part III determines the limit of the body’s ability to continue living. In short, our acquired and inherited traits of bodily function provide the chain which has a weakest link resulting in our eventual demise. The silver lining is that there is reason to believe that when all systems are functioning in balance, the decline is peaceful and without suffering, like finally coming to a rest after a long and eventful day. What is most important is that the time spent during the day was experienced in a full and stimulating matter from the moment we awake to when we close our eyes at night.
There is a reason why specific diseases are so common, like heart disease, ulcers, constipation, acne, and bacterial infections.
They are the classic exhibitions of the artifacts of compromise represented by the body’s response to chronic stress. Autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, and atopic conditions, like eczema, are also related to a systemic compromise due to stress, although the mechanisms are more complex and less well understood. Still, many common disorders, including the formation of ulcers, the hardening of arteries, and the general suppression of immune function are well outlined in Hans Seleyes’ work as well as others .
The markers of chronic stress, such as the hormones of the adrenal gland having a strong correlation with disease conditions, is well recorded in humans (1). There is evidence that by modulating these adrenal hormones, even with drugs, the degenerative effects of stress can be arrested and relieved (2). However, the most important information to know is that by reducing the exposure to chronic stress, the development of disease can be avoided or reduced. It is not so simple as “bad genes.” There are genes involved in all of the actions of the body’s innate function and the common diseases of our time are classic weak links in the human system. It is not that people have bad genes, it is just that somewhere the system will pay. As the human systems will have a tendency to have similar weak links. even with excellent genetic predisposition. it is no surprise we can find genes associated with common diseases.
A stark example of the tissue damage from acquired stress over time, which can ultimately lead to systemic failure, is the neural damage of the brain from chronic stress.
The work of a group of scientist including Robert Sapolsky MD, a neurobiologist at Stanford, has outlined the details of the mechanisms which result in stress supported nerve degeneration (5,6). Cortisol is the major hormone of chronic stress, whether it is mental, physical, emotional, nutritional, or toxic. The work of Sapolsky and others in this line of research show clearly that cortisol endangers the nerve cells of the hippocampus to such an extent that it will lead to a rapid atrophy of the brain when in an energy deficient state. The hippocampus is a coordinator of the function of many other parts of the brain with respect to memory and giving context to the our experience. This allows for learning and plays an important role in emotional attachment as well as other important mental abilities, so damage to this area is a cause of broad dysfunction. This is a condition found in aged brains and it is a universal feature in dementia and Alzheimer’s. This sort of stress induced neural damage is also seen in individuals diagnosed with clinical depression as well as those who are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is important to understand that as is the case in all compromise brought on by stress, it is a deficit of energy that is the most important factor in the degeneration. By increasing the nerve cells’ exposure to sugar or other easily used energy sources, the stress was present but the nerve was not damaged. We can also use food as a tool to reduce stress-related degeneration. The Basic Guidelines outlined in my Foundation For Human Nutrition series should be considered in an anti-stress diet.
So I have taken us through the body’s response to stress as well as the harm that chronic stress can produce. The most important information I hope to have transmitted is that we can influence the stress in our life and its effect on our health. Through intelligent coordination of our lifestyle, assessing our challenges in life, and meeting them in a way that increases our resistance, we can provide ourselves with the best preventative and curative medicine available.
If we want to find the balance which will produce as long and healthy experience as our life can allow, we must work with our body, not make our body work for us.
Note: I am not trying to answer the problems of all disease by the accumulated stress theory.
This is primarily relevant with respect to the acquired diseases of altered cellular metabolism as well as the diseases of age related degeneration. There are more rare or abnormal genetic conditions which may significantly alter how prone we are to specific diseases or may result in the manifestation of more obscure diseases. There are also genetic abnormalities that result in obvious impaired development such as cleft palate, spinal bifuda, or marble bone disease. In these cases, only a significant and dramatic intervention, such as chemical medicine, surgery, and environmental restriction, can alter or prevent it. This “predetermined” disease onset by genes seems to be the case as well for most child-onset conditions such as type one diabetes, leukemia, or sickle cell anemia. Even later onset disease such as Multiple Sclerosis is classically categorized as one of these diseases present from birth. However, some of these diseases may have something to do with pre or perinatal environment and less to do with the genes from the mother and father. Regardless, a part of the child’s innate function from birth is not preventable at that point and it seems far less likely that recovery through environmental conditioning is a realistic possibility. This does not mean that environmental conditioning is not of primary importance with medicine as a necessary implement for optimal results. Whatever conditions allowed for the onset of those diseases were during fundamental periods of embryonic development. I still want to say that this note is not to blame the diseases above on “bad genes.” We do not understand how these genetic traits are formed or exhibited. It may even be possible that environmental stress of earlier generations is an influence in the existence of such disease, the influence of stress is not as simple as “the organism developed the disease due to the stress they themselves experienced in life.”
If you are ready to get started making changes to your lifestyle that last, I would love it if you would join us on December 10th for my first-ever presentation of Managing Daily Stress in my home city of St. Louis. I have conducted this workshop at several locations out of state, but I’m very excited to finally be presenting it here! This is the first of three in my Foundation for Healthy Living Workshop series, and I built them in a specific order to help guide your next steps.
This presentation will be held at Nebula Coworking from 6-8pm and only costs $20 to attend. You can get your tickets through the Eventbrite event page below and you can easily add it to your Google, Outlook, Yahoo, or iCal calendar right from the site after you sign up. Read more about it (and a bonus special offer!) here on my blog OR get your tickets @ managingdailystress.eventbrite.com
We also have this SPECIAL OFFER just for attendees that night:
Please mention this to me at the event to claim yours!
(1)Cortisol levels and cardiovascular as well as all cause death
(2)Drug suppressing the release of adrenal hormones reduces degeneration imposed by cancer
(3)Granulated sugar in treating infected wounds
(4)Treating Diabetic Wounds with little or no scaring
(5)Rats fed cortisol pellets have similar nerve damage as those undergoing true stress
(6)Synopsis of the syndrome of cortisol vulnerability
YouTube video of Dr. Sapolsky speaking on stress related nerve degeneration: