To Your Health
June, 2008 (Vol. 02, Issue 06)
Stress: America's Great Headache
By Dr. Jared Skowron
America has some of the most stressed people in the world. So many things in our life cause stress: family, relationships, career, money, kids, family and friends at war, gas prices, and my personal favorite - expectations.
We all know of these external stressors, but are we aware of the internal stressors? Smoking, drinking, unhealthy foods, anxiety and toxins (for a listing of toxins by U.S. county, visit www.scorecard.org
) are examples of internal stressors.
Stress is our body's response to the world. Our body responds with biochemical responses of the adrenal and nervous system, which affect every other part of our body. The "fight or flight" sympathetic response, joined by other chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol, are released in response to a perceived stressor. Let's review how these chemicals and stress reactions affect our entire body.
Many people with high-stress jobs get ulcers. Reactions to stress decrease the immune system. With a lower immune system, organisms can grow in the stomach and intestines. H. pylori grows in the stomach unhindered and causes ulcers. Other bacteria, viruses and yeast (such as Candida albicans) can grow in the intestines when the immune system is suppressed. This causes irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, constipation, bloating and gas.
People with suppressed immune systems get fewer colds. This seems paradoxical, but it's true. Many people with constant high stress in their life avoid healthy immune responses for years on end. It's when they go on vacation or the stress load diminishes that they get a cold. This is due to the decreased stress response and allows the immune system to function again. The bacteria or virus that has been unchecked in the body is then attacked, and we experience the symptoms of fever, malaise, cough, rhinitis and swollen lymph glands. These are all healthy immune responses. Although uncomfortable, they are the body's way of removing foreign organisms.
Cardiac health is worsened with constant high levels of stress. Electrolyte depletion of heart cells, along with vascular inflammation from stress and elevated homocysteine levels, increase the risk for heart attacks and atherosclerosis, which are all worsened by chronic stress response.
Insomnia, another of our nation's common complaints, is directly related to perceived stress. Melatonin secretion, elevated neurotransmitter levels and nocturnal cortisol spikes are chemical reasons we can't stay asleep. Having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or having thoughts racing through our minds, are brain stress responses. This is the same biochemical area as lack of focus or adult attention deficit. All are caused by excessive stress response.