Stress could quite possibly be the common cause of all modern disease, and so-called diseases of lifestyle. Stress, chronic, prolonged, on-going at low levels can wreak havoc on the body.
While some may argue that inflammation is the common source of all disease, inflammation is likely just a pathway, with stress (exacerbated by a poor diet) as really the underlying cause of the inflammation and disease.
To better understand this, let’s look at some specific cases.
Female Hormonal Health
The female hormonal system is one of the most delicate in they body, and is quite easily affected by stress. Stress can breakdown the communication, and thus the signaling pathways, between the pituitary and hypothalamus, which regulates the secretion of gonadotropin-releasing hormone, which also dictates luteinizing hormone, follicle stimulating hormone, estrogen production, estrogen-progesterone balance, and testosterone. It is the interplay of these hormones that (along with diet and toxins) when ‘broken’ causes PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome), Endometriosis, Fibroids, etc.
As an example, when I was in Chinese Medicine clinical practice, a patient came in that every time she started working at a job, her period would stop. The stress and anxiety of her job was affecting her menstrual cycle leading to amenorrhea.
Male Hormonal Health (Low Testosterone)
For men, the situation isn’t all that different than it is for women. Under stress, the body produces cortisol, and cortisol is produced through the same hormonal pathways as sex hormones, including testosterone. However, in the case of too much stress, the body has to choose between cortisol and the other hormones, known as the “pregnenolone steal,” because cortisol ‘steals’ from pregnenolone, the precursor to sex hormones.
The result is low testosterone, decrease sex drive, reduced ability to build muscle and lose fat (which can lead to metabolic syndrome), and more.
For both men and women, stress also affects adrenal function and can lead to adrenal burnout, low thyroid, and other HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) issues.
Stress can cause numerous short-term and long-term digestion problems because stress through the action of the sympathetic nervous system shunts blood away from the digestive tract, and in so doing reduce output of enzymes, bile, peristalsis, and all the other functions that make digestion work. On a short-term basis, this can mean bloating, gas, slow digestion, belching, excessive full feelings, etc.
On a long-term basis, stress is often the cause of inexplicable digestion issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gut dysbiosis, increased gut permeability (through the down regulation of the immune system), and the aggravation of symptoms associated with ulcerative colitis.
At first glance, metabolic syndrome (including diabetes and obesity) might not seem directly related to stress, but, in fact, stress can have a big impact on its development. While diet, particularly driven by the the consumption of too many carbs and too many calories, is the leading cause, stress is also a factor.
Stress not only encourages the consumption of sweet foods through the plummeting of blood sugar and increased need for dopamine (achieved through carb consumption), more importantly and directly, stress pushes the conversion of sugar calories into stored abdominal fat–and we know that abdominal adiposity is one of the predictors of metabolic syndrome.
Over the years, stress is one of the leading factors in the developing of metabolic syndrome.
Autoimmune conditions must have a stress component. When stress is experienced, the immune system down regulates because the body perceives a threat which will kill it in the next 10 minutes (a predator) as more important than what could kill it in the next 10 days (pathogen). Overtime, this continual altering of immune system response leads to confusion or a case of mistaken identity.
The immune system, when it does work, perceives the wrong thing as a threat and begins to develop antibodies to human tissue. When combined with increased intestinal permeability (again, exacerbated, if not completely caused, by stress) leads to an autoimmune condition.
The pathways and evidence aren’t as clear cut for cancer, as they are for the diseases listed above, but preliminary research indicates that stress does play a role in the development and prognosis of cancer. This could be through gene expression, immune system function, programmed cell death, or a combination of pathways medical science has yet to understand.
It is worth noting, though, that reduced stress can only help protect you from cancer.
Yet, despite all we know about how stress affects the body, disease development and prognosis, we continue to be more and more stressed out. We seem to live in a world suffering ever increasing levels of stress, whether emotional, financial, physical, perceived, anxiety-driven, or psychological.
It is our duty, our health and longevity depends on reducing stress, learning to better manage how we respond to and deal with sources of stress, and finding ways limit the effects of stress triggers.
Some helpful stress reducers include meditation, yoga, deep breathing, soothing music, herbs, adequate sleep, nutrient-rich diet, loving family dynamics, supportive work environment, tolerant culture, and regular movement and sun exposure.
What have you noticed about how your body responds to stress?