“Pressure and stress is the common cold of the psyche.” Andrew Denton
Stress has always been a part of life. Biologically, stress is the chemical cascade that gets triggered in response to threat, that has kept the human species evolving. But what was once an adaptation for survival has turned into a way of life and psychological stress, the type that’s not as easy to switch off, plays a role in so many modern health issues.
The symptoms of stress may manifest differently from person to person. Physically our breathing becomes shallow and heart beats faster. Extra blood and nerve flow is directed to our muscles, heart, brain and lung. As the body has to compensate for this, our skin, digestion and reproductive system gets a little less. Physical signs of acute or chronic stress are often a direct result of this rearrangement of nerve and blood flow, from trouble sleeping because you’re unable to switch your thoughts off; to feeling anxious, depressed, angry or irritable, having trouble concentrating, sore muscles, skin eruptions, digestive problems or even fertility issues.
While these symptoms of stress are an obvious reaction to the readjustment of energy in the body that is not the end of the story. The biology of stress has got a lot more interesting in recent years and for a naturopath it’s very exciting to see our observations about stress and chronic disease being validated by science.
Adrenalin, cortisol and cytokines
The old wrecking balls of adrenal hormones, such as cortisol and adrenalin, have been conclusively linked to a wide range of chronic health issues from insomnia to tooth decay. But the next piece of the biology of stress story, cytokines and inflammation, demonstrates even further reaching consequences.
Cytokines are proteins released by many cells in the body and act a bit like hormones. There are different types of cytokines, mostly acting as immune modulators. Some cytokines will cause inflammation. High cortisol levels, i.e. stress, triggers the release of these chemicals and that in turn creates inflammation in the body.
In old-fashioned naturopathic language, stress changes the “terrain” of the body. If you’ve done some gardening you may have noticed that it’s not so much the seeds you sow, more the condition of the soil, that determines the health of the plants you grow. The terrain (or blood biochemistry) plays a big role in whether an underlying predisposition, such as arthritis or thyroiditis, flares up or stays dormant. The cytokine storm, whipped up by chronically high stress hormones like cortisol, can trigger inflammation. When a cancer is developing, first the immune system hasn’t acted appropriately to nip the abnormal cell division in the bud. Next, the inflammatory process increases the blood and nerve supply to the cancer, in effect “feeding” a tumour. It’s not that stress and cytokines that cause some cancers per se, rather it promotes inflammation and derails the immune systems healthy response.
Next in this three part series on stress, I’ll look at ways to decrease our reaction to stress and modifying the terrain.
The third part looks at specific naturopathic remedies to reduce your stress response.
If you’d like to learn more about the biology of stress, I’d recommend listening to two great podcasts (or reading the transcripts) from Natasha Mitchell’s excellent ABC radio program “All in the Mind”.
The biology of stress.
The science of stress, place and wellbeing.