What do heart disease, cancer, and chronic lung disease have in common? Aside from being something you don’t want to hear come out of your doctor’s mouth, they are the top three cause of death in the U.S. in order from one to three. They all have tremendous charitable organizations that raise awareness and funds for research to better treat and understand their respective pathologies. But there is one adversary to our health that can cause a multitude of health problems that most of us don’t recognize or are made aware of even if we are familiar with it by name. It’s called stress.
All Stressed Out
Whether you want to believe it or not, we live in a fast paced world. Schedules, deadlines, commitments, itineraries, etc. all place an extra bit of pressure on living your life. Add to that all of the incidentals such as weather, politics, and relationships and catching a break or your breath more precisely is very hard to come by. To most, it’s just life and things happen. Indeed, things do happen and they happen internally to our bodies as well without much of a passing thought. Known as the fight or flight response, there is an acute physiological response to what the body perceives as a threat that mobilizes a chain of hormonal reactions to prepare the body to deal with the threat, more specifically to fight or avoid the threat.
Bring It On
First coined by American psychologist Walter Cannon back in the 1920s, the fight of flight response goes into action regardless of a physical threat (i.e. an attacker) or a mental threat (i.e. public speaking). Here’s how it works. A threat (stressor) is perceived. The autonomic nervous system automatically puts your body on alert. The adrenal cortex automatically releases the stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine) into the blood stream. The heart automatically beats harder and more rapidly. Breathing automatically becomes more rapid. The thyroid gland automatically stimulates the metabolism. The larger muscles automatically receive more oxygenated blood so that they are ready to go if need be. The body’s fight or flight response, it’s theorized, took thinking out of the equation so we could react more quickly — and stay alive. In prehistoric times, the stresses were not what they are today but our bodies still deal with stressors the same way.
Where The Problem Begins
After a stressful event, it can take up to an hour for the body’s sympathetic nervous system to return to its normal level. If the stress level never drops, the lingering effects can last forever and possibly never go away. Over the long term, people who react more to stress have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. This risk particularly is linked to people who tend to be excessively competitive, impatient, hostile, and move and talk quickly. Of these characteristics, hostility is often pinpointed as the most significant. The common stress response of eating comfort foods, with their accompanying fat and salt, is not beneficial to the heart health either. Here are just some of the other health issues with their root in stress:
- High Blood Pressure - Stress increases blood pressure in the short term, so chronic stress may contribute to a permanently raised blood pressure. It raises your risk of stroke, heart failure, kidney failure and heart attack.
- Increased Intra-Abdominal Fat – Not a condition in and of itself but a big problem. As a protective mechanism against stress, the body accumulates more fat, specifically around internal vital organs.
- Susceptibility to Infection - Stress suppresses the immune system making you more vulnerable to infections. Allergies and autoimmune diseases (including arthritis and multiple sclerosis) may be exacerbated by stress.
- Skin Problems - Stress is known to aggravate skin problems such as acne, psoriasis and eczema. It also has been linked to unexplained itchy skin rashes. These skin problems are themselves intensely stressful.
- Pain - Continued stimulation of muscles through prolonged stress can lead to muscular pain such as backache. Stress also is thought to aggravate underlying painful conditions such as herniated discs, fibromyalgia and repetitive strain injury (RSI).
- Diabetes - There is some evidence that chronic stress may lead to insulin-dependent diabetes in people who are predisposed to the disease.
- Infertility - Stress does not normally cause infertility, but the two have been linked many times.
What To Do
Recognizing your body’s response to an immediate stressor or threat can help you react accordingly. Regular exercise is tremendous in not only strengthening the body physically but also in reducing the mental stresses by releasing endorphins (the feel good hormones).Other techniques such as relaxation, meditation, and breathing exercises as well as massage are all great ways to reduce stress. When in doubt, take a deep breath and don’t worry about the things you can’t control; only the things you can control.
Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.