Health Blog

February, 07 2014

Stress, Hormones, and Health – Part 1

Stress

 

STRESS IS UBIQUITOUS IN LIFE…

Almost every stimulus that a human being can experience causes some type of physiological, mental, or emotional stress.  The perception of light, for example, is considered a type of stress. Metabolism of foods produce “oxidative stress”.  Even exercise – infallible exercise – is incredibly stressful, and not just from an “I hate exercise!” perspective… Indeed, stress is an inextricable aspect of our lives; to experience stress is to be alive.  Stressful stimuli is inevitable, and on a fundamental level, a normal internal response to the external world; and in moderate doses, stress is actually beneficial to our daily functioning.

Cortisol is our primary stress hormone that enables us to cope with our external environment by stimulating key physiological processes.  For example, the perception of light stimulates the secretion of cortisol that in turn increases our alertness and helps us wake up in the morning.  Likewise, if you wake up late for work, cortisol (in addition to adrenaline) is further secreted to rapidly increase energy and alertness to get your butt in gear!  With regards to exercise, cortisol is secreted in a dose dependent response relative to exercise intensity.  Through a complex metabolic pathway, exercise-induced cortisol essentially enables us to increase energy production (primarily via glycolysis) to facilitate performance.

These are a couple good examples of how the human stress response is actually adaptive (beneficial) and well suited to meet the demands of our bodies and minds.  However, excessive stress is maladaptive, and if left unchecked, can lead to pathology and disease.  But before we get into all that… I think it’s important to understand the value of the stress response from an evolutionary perspective.

 

THE EVOLUTION OF THE STRESS RESPONSE

Stress hormones (epinepherine, norepinepherine, cortisol) were paramount to our survival as a species millennia ago. The perception of threats or opportunities to hunt stimulated sympathetic activity throughout our ancestor’s bodies to enable the illustrious “fight or flight response”.  Without this critical autonomic neural system and the associated stress hormones, our ancestors would not have been able to effectively avoid predators or stalk prey.  In an extremely violent and chaotic world, the effectiveness of this system was a matter of life or death.  Useful.  In modern society? Not so much…

The everyday life of a modern, civilized human being is drastically less dangerous than that of our ancestors.  For the most part, society has gotten progressively less violent with the passage of time (minus, of course, instances of war). Respectively, it is quite rare that civilized people (IE:  normal people, not gang-members or psychopaths) are experiencing life threatening events; and from this perspective, our lives are relatively stress free.  But we all know that is not the case.  The modern man is inundated with stress, albeit a very different kind of stress than what our ancient ancestors had evolved with.

 

HEAVY LIES THE ADVANCED BRAIN

The development of our advanced brains – the neocortex – has been a blessing and a curse with regards to stress. As the human brain evolved over time, our ancestors became better equipped to avoid violence by utilizing the language centers associated with the prefrontal cortex.  Perception of threats could be negotiated as opposed to ending in savagery, which is good.  However, as these critical centers of our brains continued to evolve and develop, it has enabled modern human beings to become obsessive, neurotic, ruminating machines.

Our ability to be self-aware, to contemplate, to rationalize, and to experience emotions is indeed beautiful; however, ambivalently, it also enables us to internalize and compound stress.  Regardless of whether the stimuli we are experiencing is legitimately stressful or not, our subjective perception is what really matters, and something as simple as rain can “ruin my day”.

Life-threatening events are indeed much more stressful than running late to work.  Nevertheless, how often are we experiencing life-threatening events?  Rarely.  How often are we experiencing subjective events (traffic, irate people, family and relationship dynamics)?  All the time.  Therefore, if you were to look at the ‘area under the curve’ stress graph of ancient humans vs. modern humans, you would see that modern humans have overall much more stress. This is due to our perception of normal events as stressful and our incessant internal monologue that makes it so.

 

EXCESSIVE STRESS = EXCESSIVE CORTISOL 

Regardless of whether events are legitimately or subjectively stressful, our bodies are secreting stress hormones to help us cope.  Unfortunately, excessive and chronic stress stimulates dangerous levels of cortisol that can cause a slew of health problems, including:  abnormal blood glucose levels, insulin resistance, diabetes, hypertension, inflammation, joint and muscle pain, arteriosclerosis, adrenal exhaustion (chronic fatigue), suppressed immune system, irregular bowel movements, excessive protein degradation (muscle wasting), weight-loss resistance, and in extreme cases, Cushing’s disease.

 

MANAGING STRESS IS THE KEY TO HEALTH AND HAPPINESS

Events in life that can stimulate our subjective sense of stress are perhaps unavoidable.  We all have bosses, deadlines, families, bills, and traffic to contend with.  These stimuli will likely not go away, but our perception of them and our subsequent mental and emotional response can be much improved.  There is an apt saying in life:  “It’s not what happens in life that matters, it’s what you do about it that makes a difference.”

Often times, we cannot change our circumstances, but what we can change is our reaction to them.  We can learn to manage our stress by attenuating our unhealthy impulses and habits.  There are an abundance of useful techniques that can be used to ameliorate subjective stressful events in life.  One of the most useful practices is deep breathing techniques (very slow and deliberate exhaling is key), which has been repeatedly proven to stimulate parasympathetic activity (relaxation) and the empathic centers of our brain (orbitofrontal cortex) while concomitantly inhibiting the parts of our brain that stimulate the fight or flight response (amygdalae and hypothalamus).  Deep breathing can be done anywhere and the healing it brings can occur quickly, often within 30-90 seconds.

Other useful techniques include:  meditating, listening to relaxing music, reading a book, going for a walk/hike, exercising/bursts of high intensity exercise for extremely short durations (IE:  30 seconds of squat jumps), venting to a friend/partner, watching a funny movie, etc.  It is important that you find what works best for you and develop a regular practice to keep stress levels low.

There are legitimately stressful events in life, and there are events that are simply subjectively stressful.  In either case, we have the ability – at any moment – to propagate the stress by indulging in a victim mentality, or reduce stress through relaxation techniques.  There is no point in perpetuating unnecessary suffering… not only is our happiness at stake, but also our health.  Be kind, compassionate, loving, and gentle in life – and most importantly, with yourself.  You will be amazed at how simple and healing stress-coping techniques can be.


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