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Most of us are aware that stress is one of the key drivers behind many of our modern health complaints. Stress is a risk factor for hormone imbalance, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer as well as mental illnesses like anxiety or depression and even brain-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s. Ever wondered how stress can have such a devastating impact on our body?
The mind-body connection, or the stress-illness connection for purposes of this article, works in different ways. It’s useful to remember firstly that the stress response is meant to improve your chances of surviving a physical threat to your safety. The fight-or-flight mechanism evolved as a survival mechanism to help us escape life-threatening attacks. Today many of what we know as “stressors” are not physical threats. However, mental stressors have the same impact on our bodies, and when they become chronic, they cause significant dysfunction to many of our bodies’ systems.
Stress and General Adaptation Syndrome
All organisms react with the same three-step process to maintain metabolic equilibrium known as the “General Adaptation Syndrome”. It’s a complex process involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system, but essentially, the first stage is the familiar “fight-or-flight” response which releases stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream. In the second stage, if the perceived stressors aren’t resolved, our physiological functions may return to normal, but the levels of cortisol and adrenaline in our blood remain elevated. In the third stage, your adaptive mechanisms exhaust their resources, and you become susceptible to various types of ailments, such as those listed above. These stages describe what is known as the biochemical effect of stress.
Stress and Oxidation
Another parallel theory around why chronic, persistent stress triggers numerous illnesses involves oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the cells of the body, which can lead to cell and tissue damage. It’s important to remember that our bodies are always producing free radicals during normal metabolic processes. Our cells also make antioxidants that neutralize the free radicals, and if we are healthy, our body can maintain a balance. Antioxidants may include those naturally produced by the body such as glutathione or may be eaten in “superfoods” such as those of certain fruits and vegetables.
External factors such as diet, environmental toxins, and lifestyle can cause excess free radical production and lead to this imbalance, known as oxidative stress. Oxidative stress involves free radicals doing damage to proteins, DNA and fatty tissue. It can lead to inflammation and a negative cycle of ongoing oxidation, which then leads to conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and cardiovascular disease.
So, where does psychological stress come into the picture? Studies have found an association between mental stress and higher levels of oxidative stress or damage. The brain is considered especially sensitive to oxidative damage because it consumes large amounts of oxygen and also produces many free radicals. Studies have found links between oxidative stress and anxiety and depression as well as neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
How Stress Ages Us
Many of us have used the expression that a stressful situation took years off the life of someone, but it turns out it’s true. Studies have shown that the cortisol levels of those who suffer from chronic stress are associated with shorter telomeres, a measure of biological aging. The telomere is the protective DNA strand at the ends of the chromosome. As we age and our chromosomes divide, they shorten, and studies show that oxidative stress and inflammation accelerate this shortening. Regulation of the stress hormone cortisol, therefore, plays a big part in whether the aging process proceeds healthily or gets “fast-tracked”.
Preventing Stress and Oxidation
It is possible to limit stress-related biochemical and oxidative damage and its resulting adverse health impacts. Reducing the stress in one’s life through proper nutrition, sleep, and regular exercise is vital to keeping the body biochemically balanced. Maintaining a healthy body weight and limiting the intake of processed foods and sugars has been shown to reduce oxidative stress. Mindfulness and meditation are proven techniques to cope with and minimize the inevitable stresses of life. Adding natural neurotransmitters as well as botanical and adrenal preparations to your routine are safe complements to these stress-reducing, healthy life strategies.