When attempting to achieve a life of thriving, rather than merely surviving, appropriate attention must be paid to the potential detrimental effects of stress. In our society the term stress generally refers to a negatively heightened emotional state due to a specific event or overload of activities. This is known as mental stress. Physical stress on the body caused by injury, bad posture or sustained over exertion (endurance athletes) can wreak the same havoc. In order to truly understand why we should attempt to de-stress our lives, a brief overview of the physiological mechanism behind stress and its effects should be understood.
The main mechanism responsible for our body’s response to stress is called the HPA axis. This stands for Hypothalamus (part of the brain), Pituitary gland (responsible for production/storage and/or secretion of various hormones), and Adrenal glands (sit on top of the kidneys and also secrete hormones). When we become “stressed” or “wound up,” the stressful sensory input is processed in the brain and the HPA axis is activated as our body’s attempt to adapt to this heightened more demanding state. Ultimately the pathway leads to sympathetic nervous system stimulation that then stimulates the medulla of the adrenal glands, secreting nor-epinephrine and epinephrine which are the chief neurotransmitters of the previously discussed sympathetic nervous system. Remember your sympathetic nervous system is your “fight or flight” system, so it is appropriate that it would be activated in what is perceived as a stressful situation. We’ve gone over some of the pitfalls of an overactive sympathetic nervous system in previous posts.
A critical thing happens here from the release of nor-epinephrine and epinephrine from the adrenal medulla. The sympathetic nervous system has been activated along with the release of inflammatory mediators called cytokines. This is a key part to understanding potential hazards. Not only does stress cause an inflammatory response, BUT inflammation (from injury or DIET, see where I’m going with this people? It’s all connected) can actually start the HPA axis and thus prompt and contribute to the stress response.
Now a normal inflammatory response to damage is a function of your immune system and is actually a good thing. The problem arises when there is too much inflammation. Your body knows this and in order to combat the stress induced inflammation releases a substance called cortisol in order to reduce the inflammation. It does this however, by dampening your immune system leaving us much more susceptible to infection and becoming sick. On the flip side to this, if your HPA axis is not functioning properly, this immune suppression that the cortisol is secreted to carry out may be lost. Now we have an individual with growing inflammation and an overzealous, under regulated immune response which can lead us toward numerous chronic and autoimmune diseases. The key here is to stay balanced and find that zone that works best for your particular physiology.
This has struck a particular cord with me as of late as I became frustrated that I was walking around with a runny nose and productive cough. I’ve been eating right and staying active, so what gives? Well, I was forced to look in the mirror and realize that going too hard can be just as damaging as living an overfed, sedentary life to begin with. I know most of you out there know what I’m talking about. Whether it’s a combination of work, school, exercise, kids, social life; something from the day in and day out grind has to give and unfortunately it is usually our health. This is our body trying to scream at us and tell us to ease up before even more serious damage is done.
Our bodies are designed to handle stress, but not at the sustained doses we are exposed to in modern day. Like all processes in the body, the HPA axis demonstrates what we call plasticity. This is basically a form of adaptation that can be utilized in our favor at times, but in this case works against us. Without a break or release, our stress pathway continues to fire, becoming stronger and stronger and easier and easier to be stimulated. You can now find yourself suffering from the effects of stress from normally unstressful stimuli or events, or even worse be in a constant state of HPA firing until fatigue and/or eventual death.
Without going into the actual detailed mechanisms involved in each issue, over activation of the HPA stress pathway and its partners in crime can lead to decreased immune system function, higher blood pressure, breakdown of connective tissue including the collagen in your skin (you ever notice how weathered those habitual marathoners look?), blood sugar and insulin dysfunction similar to that of a diabetic, increased body fat especially deposited around that mid-section, decreased libido and fertility, thyroid dysfunction (one of the most common diagnoses these days. Instead of prescribing synthroid maybe take a look at this pathway as the adrenal glands have been known to work opposite to the thyroid gland. Translation = overactive adrenals = underactive thyroid), osteoporosis (cortisol leaches calcium from your bones) and cardiovascular disease (the calcium leached from your bones has to go somewhere, and some gets deposited in your arteries = atherosclerosis), cortical degeneration leading to a decline in a multitude of higher functions especially memory, even insomnia. I know it seems counter-intuitive and that you should be able to pass right out if you’re constantly going hard, but this is just a perfect example of the complexity of chemical disruption that occurs when non-stop stress reigns.
Well, that was a mouthful. As always, I go into this stuff because I personally don’t sit well with being told what to do without explanation. As you can see, when we do that in today’s world we open ourselves up for all sorts of fun things. If you’re still actually reading at this point, I commend you. Next time, the focus will be on ways to de-stress and getting you closer towards thriving. But for now, take a break. I don’t want you to get all stressed out reading this.