“It is not the stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” -Hans Selye
There has long been an unspoken misconception that when a doctor tells a patient that their symptoms are “probably just caused by stress” that this implies their symptoms are imagined. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Science has only scratched the surface of understanding the many ways in which stress affects our physiology. I believe that stress is more far reaching than any other risk factor when it comes to disease. Stress is making us age faster and ultimately killing us.
So what is stress? In generic terms, stress is the response of the body to any demand put upon it. There are 2 components of our response to stress: 1) our thoughts and emotions, of which we have much control and 2) the body’s physiologic response, of which we have little control. The demands can also be broken up into 2 components: 1) circumstances, of which we have more control and 2) other people, of which we have little control. We will talk more about these components of demand and response in another post.
The body’s response to stress is a complicated physiologic cascade called the “fight or flight” response which is regulated by the autonomic nervous system, an automatic neurologic and endocrine response that is not under conscious control. This response activates the body to prepare for “fight or flight”. The heart beats faster and harder, elevating blood pressure. Blood sugar and triglycerides are released from the liver to provide energy. Muscles are tensed and readied for action. When we fight or flee, all this energy is released, completing the fight or flight response. As you can imagine, when stress is chronic and there is no release, the result is chronically elevated blood pressure, blood sugar, triglycerides, and muscle tension. It is obvious how this chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated triglycerides, and chronic back and neck pain. Under times of stress, the gastrointestinal system does not function normally. Irritable bowel syndrome, gastroesophageal reflux (heartburn), and stomach ulcers are also linked to stress. Under times of stress, the immune system becomes dysfunctional. Poor immunity (frequent infections including upper respiratory infections, urinary tract infections, prostatitis, and vaginal yeast infections) and autoimmune diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, lupus) are also linked to chronic stress. Stress hormones also cause breakdown of bone and, not surprisingly, stress is also linked to osteoporosis.
So what can we do to prevent and counteract the stress response from causing disease? In the next blog, find out how you can control the fight or flight response.