When you feel frazzled, so do your organs and cells
By Brooke Borel March 20, 2015
CHRONIC STRESS HAS CONSEQUENCES
Photograph and sculpture by Jason Freeny/Moistproduction.com
Chronic stress stems from many circumstances, such as poverty, a bad marriage, or long-term ailments. Its repercussions—elevated cortisol levels and inflammation—can wear us out, from the cellular level on up to our major biological systems.
The brain changes in response to experiences and the environment. This is especially true in childhood, when key structures—such as the amygdala, involved in the fight-or-flight center—develop. Extreme childhood adversity can alter these structures and impact mental health later in life. An estimated 30 percent of anxiety disorders are linked to early trauma. Research from Columbia University shows that orphans who spent their early years in institutional care can have abnormally large amygdalae, physical changes that can persist even after adoption.
Both chronic stress and stress-related disorders, such as anxiety and depression, increase the risk for heart disease, although scientists are not entirely sure why. According to the American Heart Association, stress may indirectly influence cardiovascular health through high blood pressure as well as unhealthy behaviors, including overeating and smoking. And the shock of sudden, intense stress, such as the death of a partner, can rapidly weaken the heart, possibly because of a surge of stress hormones. The phenomenon is called broken heart syndrome.
The brain and the digestive tract are in constant communication, says Emeran Mayer, a gastroenterologist at UCLA. Unsurprisingly, chronic stress is associated with painful gastrointestinal issues. According to Mayer’s research, some patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) show abnormal levels of cortisol and cortisol-stimulating hormones. People with IBS are also more likely to suffer from stress-related psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and depression.
30: Percent of U.S. adults who say stress strongly impacts their physical health; 33 percent say it strongly impacts their mental health
Nearly every cell has chromosomes, and the tip of each one is capped by a bit of genetic material; each time a cell divides, these telomeres shorten. When they run out, the cell dies. The chronically stressed have unusually short telomeres, putting them at risk for many age-related illnesses. The effects can be dramatic: In 2014, researchers found that disadvantaged 9-year-old boys had telomeres 19 percent shorter than those from more stable environments.
According to research by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a clinical psychologist at the Ohio State College of Medicine, vaccines are less effective when we’re stressed and wounds take longer to heal. Research from Carnegie Mellon University shows that stress even makes us more vulnerable to the common cold. In 2012, the scientists found a likely culprit: In a healthy body, cortisol helps suppress inflammation. But the chronically stressed have consistently elevated cortisol levels, so the immune system grows resistant to the hormone, effectively ignoring it. Inflammation-causing proteins called cytokines—associated with developing a cold—then go unchecked.
High cortisol levels boost the amount of fat around the belly. Extra abdominal fat may increase the risk for diabetes, which in turn may impair the stress response in the brain, says Antonio Convit, a psychiatrist at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research. The system that inhibits cortisol in the brain doesn’t work normally in people with type-2 diabetes. These patients also have blunted levels of cortisol when they wake up in the morning, as well as damage to the hippocampus, a brain region with concentrated cortisol receptors that is especially vulnerable to chronic stress.
How Does Stress Mess With Your Sleep?
STRESS HORMONES IN THE BLOOD
Data source: P.W. Gold and G.P. Chousos, Molecular Psychiatry, July 2002
Katie Peek/Popular Science
The stress hormone cortisol helps regulate sugar levels in the body. Cortisol levels vary throughout the day, but typically follow a circadian rhythm where they are highest in the morning, drop steadily, and then build up again overnight. Researchers from the National Institutes of Health found depressed patients tend to have abnormally high cortisol levels. Scientists still don’t know what this means, but it points to one of the many ways that stress-related disorders may interact with and disrupt normal body cycles.
Chronic stress is hazardous to your health and can lead to early death from heart disease, cancer and other health problems. But it turns out it doesn’t matter whether the stress comes from major events in life or from minor problems. Both can be deadly.
And it may be that it’s not the stress from major life events like divorce, illness and job loss trickled down to everyday life that gets you; it’s how you react to the smaller, everyday stress.
The most stressed-out people have the highest risk of premature death, according to one study that followed 1,293 men for years.
“People who always perceived their daily life to be over-the-top stressful were three times more likely to die over the period of study than people who rolled with the punches and didn’t find daily life very stressful,” according to Carolyn Aldwin. She directs the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University and led the study, which is scheduled for publication in the journal Experimental Gerontology.
Some people get frantic sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, worried about being late or not being able to do what they hoped in a timely manner. Others simply take the time to sit back, listen to music and appreciate the break as some quiet time.
Now, getting upset in traffic once is no big deal. But if things like that happen all the time and the response is always getting really upset, then the harmful effects of stress can become toxic.
“There are a number of ways chronic stress can kill you,” says Aldwin. That includes increased levels of cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone. Elevated cortisol levels interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, and increase blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease.
Ever stop and measure the stress in your life? Did you know that your reactions to stress can make you seriously sick and shorten your life? Take a self-assessment questionnaire here to help figure out your stress level.
Too Much Stress… A Massive Power of Self Destruction
“If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress and tension. And if you didn’t ask me, I’d still have to say it.”
− The late comedian George Burns, who lived to 100
When I was 13, my paternal grandmother died from a massive stroke. I remember asking my father what had caused her stroke. He explained that the oil burner in my grandmother’s house had started smoking and she became emotionally upset about it. Within a few minutes she became confused, and then collapsed to the floor.
I recalled the incident later when I studied the psychological connection to physical disease. I realized that my grandmother’s intense reaction had lit a lethal fuse.
This event in my youth remained in the back of my mind when, as a practicing physician, I repeatedly asked patients about the stress in their lives. The answers I heard over the years cemented my understanding of just how powerful stress and emotions were as contributing factors to not only heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke, but to the erosion of health in general.
Stress is a weapon of mass destruction. You have to prevent it from destroying you!
Most people, including doctors, don’t really appreciate the power of stress and what it can do to your body. I’ve seen the fallout too many times myself to have any doubts about its lethality. Most people trivialize stress, brush it off or underestimate its potency. “I’m just a little stressed,” they’ll say, as if chronic stress equates to caffeinated edginess. It doesn’t. It is responsible, in fact, for 75 to 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians.
The following information will tell you why this is so, and what you can do about the stress in your life.
What is Stress?
Stress is a measure of your mental and physical resistance to circumstances beyond your control. Stressors are threats, demands, or changes to which you attach special, significant importance, and with which you may struggle or feel uncertainty.
Common stressors include the loss of a vital connection through death or the emotional longing for someone who is unavailable, especially a spouse or family members; financial distress; being overworked at your job, at home, or in your studies; caretaking; workplace and personal relationship struggles; divorce; and other fears of loss and inability to meet external demands.
How Acute Stress and Chronic Stress Affect You
When you encounter a stressful situation, stress hormones flood your bloodstream so that you can respond quickly and with strength. Watching your child blindly run across a busy street, for example, might induce a hormonal response that enables you to catch your youngster before any harm is done. Specifically, your pituitary gland discharges ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) into the bloodstream. ACTH, in turn, catalyzes the release of two catecholamine hormones, epinephrine (adrenalin) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), from your sympathetic nerves into the bloodstream. Catecholamines, produced by the adrenal glands, serve as neurotransmitters that signal the body to prepare for emergency action.
Physiological changes produced include increased heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and muscle tension that serve to supply adequate blood to your brain and musculoskeletal system. Higher levels of free fatty acids and blood sugar are released to provide immediate energy to survive the perceived emergency. This is what we call the well-known “fight or flight response.”
It is the general absence of an emergency or threat taken in response to some stressor that may wreak havoc with your health. In most emotionally stressful social situations, for example those that result from ongoing work, financial worry, or personal relationships, you don’t actually flee or fight. Instead, you may “suck it up,” and end up storing the stress internally. Additionally, your reaction to the stressor may include feelings of helplessness or futility, which might cause your stress hormones to continue to surge.
Long-term chronic stress can wreck your nervous system through a cyclic adrenaline rush. It can cause oxidative damage to tissues in the body that leads to inflammation. It can stoke symptoms such as headache, achy neck, ulcer, allergies, and diminished sexual desire. Eventually, your body will adapt to a continued state of vigilance by producing an excess amount of the stress hormone cortisol. Too much stress, over time, can exhaust you (you “burn out”), your adrenal glands where cortisol is produced, and accelerate the aging process, harm your immune system, and even shrink vital brain tissue resulting in memory loss and problems with concentration.
This scenario is the leading but often overlooked cause of insomnia and a major contributor to mental ills (depression, obsessive compulsive and anxiety disorders), as well as physical diseases ranging from the common cold, recurrent herpes and obesity, to AIDS and cancer. It is hard to think of any disease in which stress cannot play a precipitating or aggravating role.
What develops is a vicious cycle. Add in sedentary living, sleep deprivation, abuse of stimulants, hostility, smoking, social isolation, and an unhealthy diet, and things really do go downhill.
Can Stress Kill You?
Absolutely…Acute stress is the leading cause of sudden death, especially in young healthy people with no evidence of coronary disease. But it can fell people at any age. My grandmother is an example.
Chronic stress causes heart disease. It is a clandestine cause − not fat or cholesterol − of heart attacks and arterial disease. It contributes to high blood pressure (hypertension), a risk factor for cardiovascular problems such as heart failure and sudden cardiac death and heart enlargement.
Long-term depression significantly increases the risk of heart disease. Among other effects, it actually triples the disease producing effect of smoking.
In cardiology, stress is a grim reaper that abruptly ends life by rupturing unstable plaque in a vital vessel or by triggering a lethal disturbance in heart rhythm.
When you get fired up emotionally, you’re putting a torch to your arteries. Medical research has repeatedly documented the danger of anger, chronic stress, and the negative emotional states. Yet these risk factors are rarely addressed by doctors.
How We React to Stress
Stress comes and goes in all our lives. Your ability to adapt well to stressors is key for a good quality of life and health preservation. If you don’t adapt, stress can surely kill. I have no doubt whatsoever.
Upon encountering stressors you have two choices. You can adapt and “go with the flow” by doing something to create change or otherwise ameliorate the situation. Or, you can “mal-adapt” by withdrawing or pushing beyond normal expectations in an effort to make the stress disappear. Sometimes “easier said than done,” adapting may require repeated conscious effort.
Opting for unhealthy coping strategies, such as abusing drugs or alcohol, overeating, or overworking, can pile on yet more stress. Even the medication that doctors prescribe for stress can add to the pile. Most physicians, in fact, have little training in recognizing stress or treating it, other than to prescribe a tranquilizer, anti-depressant, sleeping pill – or perhaps all three. Such band-aid approaches can cause additional stress because of dependency and side effects that are then treated with even more drugs that create still more side effects. Taken habitually, they all add a layer of toxic pharmaceutical stress that a strained body has to deal with.
Less Stress Promotes Longevity
Every time a particular stressor challenges you, you are given the opportunity to choose to adapt healthfully.
If you want to live longer, you better learn to defuse your stress. Scientific evidence has surfaced that stress reduction bolsters longevity by directly impacting your DNA in a favorable way. That revelation comes from the many years of work by three American geneticists who won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. Their research (Epal, et. al) involves the study of telomeres, the tail portion of chromosomes that controls the lifespan of cells and their division. These protective structures look something like the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces but act like guardians and timers of cellular aging. As the aging process progresses, telomeres shorten. At some point this shrinkage contributes to cellular senescence and has been associated with many degenerative and age-related conditions.
The research suggests strongly that reduction of stress may help contribute to enhanced longevity and slowing down the telomere attrition. Among the most fascinating studies, Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., one of the Nobel Prize winners from the University of California-San Francisco, organized a study of women caring for children seriously compromised by chronic illnesses and disabilities − talk about incredible stress! − and compared them to mothers of healthy children. When the scientists scrutinized the telomeres by examining blood samples, they found significantly shorter lengths in the mothers most traumatized by their situations.
The researchers wanted to investigate the hypothesis that stress impacts health by affecting the rate of cellular aging. Their study provided evidence that long-term exposure to stress decreases telomerase, the enzyme that provides protection for the telomeres. A shortage of the enzyme results in telomere shortening, leading to accelerated aging through premature cell death.
The stress, they said, not only lowered telomerase activity and shortened telomeres but also generated higher oxidative stress. All of these factors are “known determinants of cell senescence and longevity. Women with the highest levels of perceived stress have telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of at least one decade of additional aging compared to low stress women. These findings have implications for understanding how, at the cellular level, stress may promote earlier onset of age-related diseases.”
We all know people who are chronically stressed. They tend to look haggard. Now, thanks to the telomere researchers, we are able to understand more of the exact mechanisms of how stress works − and kills − under the skin.
The attention and acclaim from this line of research hopefully will revive medical interest in dealing with stress in safe, effective, and uplifting ways, beyond just the business-as-usual pharmaceutical approach, which has so many side effects.
Years ago, before the American Heart Association finally identified “stress” as an independent factor for heart disease, I used to supervise workshops to help local cardiac patients learn to identify their stressors, as well as discover interventions to alleviate the stress. Over the thirty or so years since, medical science has accumulated indisputable evidence that stress reduction lowers blood pressure, relieves physiological strain on the heart, and may even save your life. Now we are learning the impact of stress down at the DNA level.
What to Do When You’re Stressed
What’s your stress-busting method? There’s a lot to choose from. Neurofeedback. Meditation. Yoga. A hobby. Dancing. Playing music. Playing or watching sports. Playing with the kids or grandkids. Crossword puzzles. Knitting. A hobby. They are all out there.
And be sure you laugh a lot – a great form of stress release!
And reconnect yourself to the Earth through Earthing (grounding). This simple practice allows the Earth’s natural and gentle electric energy to flow into your body where it calms the nervous system, promotes sleep and better blood flow, reduces inflammation and pain, and increases your energy. It’s as easy to do as being regularly outside barefoot on grass, dirt, stone, and sand. But that may not be practical for many people, and certainly not in cold, winter weather. Conductive Earthing sheets, mats, and bands are commercially available to allow you to soak up healthy Earth vibes and improve your health. This is a major health breakthrough and I don’t know an easier way to improve your health and lower your stress.
Do I believe you can lengthen your life if you de-stress yourself? Absolutely. I’ve observed many times how it shortens life.
Whatever you do when you’re stressed, make it a regular fixture on your path through life.
References and Resources:
- The American Institute of Stress
- Sinatra ST. Heartbreak & Heart Disease.
- Sinatra ST, Roberts JC. Reverse Heart Disease Now.
- Sinatra ST. Lower Your Blood Pressure in Eight Weeks
- Ober C, Sinatra ST, Zucker M. Earthing: the most important health discovery ever?
- Epel ES, Blackburn EH, et al. Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress. Proc Natl Acad Sci, 2004; 101(49):17312-15.
Chronic illness is a substantial global burden, with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting that 38 million of 56 million deaths worldwide in 2012 were due to non-communicable, or chronic, illness.1 Furthermore, chronic illness in the Canadian population is estimated to increase by 4.7% from 2010 to 2030.2
Chronic illness has numerous definitions, but commonalities include a lengthy time course, progressive severity and decreased overall functioning causing impaired quality of life.1,3 The WHO focuses on medically based chronic illnesses;4 however, mental illness, drug abuse and chronic pain can be included given their long persistence and drain on sufferers.2,5,6
Anxiety, stress and distress associated with chronic medical conditions have been well documented.7,8 Anxiety is the subjective psychological experience of environmental stressors which is marked by continued excessive worry, sleep abnormalities, difficulty concentrating, emotional lability, fatigue and restlessness.9,10 Stress/distress is the psychological and hormonal response to environmental pressures.10,11 Although separate definitions of anxiety and stress/distress are presented, these terms are often used interchangeably due to their inherent connection with each other.
Chronic anxiety and stress can increase catecholamine release, decrease growth hormones, and aberrantly activate immune and inflammatory cascades.12 As such, stress and anxiety can directly influence illness progression and can lead to irritable bowel syndrome exacerbations and increased cardiovascular risk.7 Increased frequency of general anxiety disorder has also been found in people with asthma, cancer and chronic pain.7 This comorbidity of anxiety with chronic illness can cause increased morbidity, mortality and decreased quality of life.13 Traditional treatment for anxiety includes psychological treatments such as cognitive therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy and self-help groups, as well as pharmacological modalities such as benzodiazepines and antidepressants.14 Neurofeedback may reduce or eliminate the use of these medications.
Anxiety and stress also have direct neurobiological consequences. Stress hormones have been linked to neuronal remodeling, excitotoxic damage and neuroanatomical changes to the hippocampus and basolateral amygdala.15 Alpha electroencephalography (EEG) recordings have revealed right frontal lateralization in anxious aroused patients as compared to healthy control populations.16 Such brain-specific alternations hint at the usefulness of a therapy such as neurofeedback in regulating anxiety. Neurofeedback is a novel complementary and alternative medicine therapy that is being used mainly by psychologists to treat a number of psychological conditions, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).17 As this is not a mainstream medical therapy, it is unclear whether individuals with anxiety and stress secondary to a chronic illness will also benefit from this therapy.
Alpha EEG biofeedback, neurotherapy or neurofeedback is a non-invasive drug-free technique. Brain activity is monitored by recording electrodes placed at designated locations on the scalp. Waveforms are then fed back to the patient through computer generated auditory or visual stimuli.18 When waveforms balance within a healthy threshold, the system provides positive reinforcement such as a pleasant tone.18 This treatment technique has been effectively used since the 1960s in many conditions, including ADHD, epilepsy, alcoholism, PTSD, stroke, depression, fibromyalgia and autism.19
Neurofeedback has been used in phobic and psychiatric populations to decrease anxiety. In a randomized controlled trial (RCT), females with spider phobia underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) neurofeedback, which decreased self-rated anxiety levels as compared to cognitive reappraisal controls and decreased insular activity.20 In a pre- and post-test study, high frequency beta neurofeedback training in a PTSD population showed decreased self-rated anxiety.21 Finally, in a quasi-randomized study of psychiatric patients with prominent anxiety symptoms, alpha EEG biofeedback decreased Taylor’s Manifest Anxiety Scores in all anxiety groups.22
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Anxiety; EEG biofeedback; mood disorder; neurofeedback; neurotherapy; stress