Simply, stated, stress is a stimulus perceived by the body that elicits
a response and dependent upon numerous contextual factors, the outcome
of the stimulus-response exchange may be beneficial or detrimental.
For example, exercise is considered a "positive" form of stress.
As force is applied to the body, it demands an increase in the body's
normal physiological and mechanical output. If this is introduced gradually,
with a safe and proper approach, muscular strength, cardiovascular functioning
and flexibility is improved.
"Task" challenges undertaken may also yield positive results.
The practice required to play a musical instrument or the intellectual
agility associated with puzzles and brain teasers develop physical and
mental acuity. The instinctual desire for an infant to walk and a child's
love of play promotes a solid sense of self' both physically and mentally.
However, the common use of stress carries a negative connotation. The
difference between a positive and a negative outcome is primarily dependent
upon the intensity, duration and/or the frequency of the stressors involved.
does the body respond?
Under normal conditions, the body functions in a highly complex, integrated
conglomeration of rhythms: heartbeats, seasonal changes, monthly cycles,
hunger, sleep, work and play. Although these are the most familiar patterns,
there is a diurnal (daily) rhythm highly critical for the maintenance
of our well being: the production of cortisol and DHEA. This daily production,
via the adrenal glands, acts as the body's primary modulator to stress.
In a relatively healthy individual, these steroids have a predictable,
measurable pattern. In response to stress, the balance to these hormones
will shift accordingly. The resulting change in their ratio will reflect
the severity and chronicity of the individual's stress response. When
the body perceives stress, (whether it is physical, chemical or emotional),
it requires glucose to assist in its' response.
A series of chemical reactions involving a part of the brain known as
the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenals occur to allocate
the necessary quantity of glucose to match the demand. First, the hypothalamus
sends the chemical messenger CRF (corticotrophin releasing factor) to
the pituitary, located on the underside of the brain. Upon receiving
this input, the pituitary then transmits its chemical messenger, ACTH
(adrenocorticotrophic hormone) to the adrenal glands, perched on top
of the kidneys. Specialized glands in the adrenals receive this input.
One type of cell produces cortisol, primarily known for its' anti-inflammatory
properties, i.e. cortisone is a pharmaceutical facsimile, and the other
cell manufactures DHEA, the precursor to the sex hormones testosterone
Cortisol released in response to a stress stimulus initiates the needed
glucose production via the liver, and if necessary, will convert protein
from muscle tissue or triglycerides from adipose stores into glucose.
For cortisol to be fully effective, the body's physiological hierarchy
is temporarily shifted to direct its attention towards its' immediate
needs at the expense of other biological activities including hunger,
the immune system, sleep and reproductive capacities. As the stressors
subside, cortisol returns to its' previous levels and normal functioning
is resumed. This biochemical adaptation evolved to handle short-term
If the stressful condition(s) persist and prevents the body from returning
to its' previous levels, the stress response will accumulate and lay
the groundwork for eventual health dysfunctions.
The body will move through three basic stages of stress. The first phase
is the alarm stage. This is comparable to the aforementioned description
of short-term stress, Initially, cortisol increases, accompanied by
the increase in DHEA levels If the stimulus persists, DHEA output gradually
declines and shifts the body into the next phase called the resistance
stage, characterized by physical alterations in organ tissue structure
and invariably, adaptive compromises in function.
Within the resistance phase (stage 2) the variable range of cortisol/DHEA
imbalances is sp far reaching it is beyond the scope of this article.
However, the effects are easily demonstrated in asthma, bowel dysfunctions,
hypoglycemia, fatigue, thyroid impairment, and recurring infections.
Stage 3 is adrenal fatigue. The cortisol producing cells are replaced
by fat and hemmorhagic blood vessels are visibly noticeable. Daily cortisol
output is below normal, creating serious fatigue, chronic blood sugar
instability and impaired mental functioning i.e. memory, learning and
Alzheimers disease. Verification of this stage, concurrent with the
precipitous drop in cortisol, is denoted by an increase in the DHEA
The original groundbreaking groundwork in this field, by Dr. Hans Selye,
revealed that regardless of the illness, three changes always occur;
adrenal gland hypertrophy, atrophy of the thymus gland and lymphatic
structures (immune system related) and gastric ulcerations.
As research progressed and the mechanism by which cortisol produced
these changes became clearly understood, missing pieces to numerous
illnesses started to fall into place.
The implications of stress, termed the "neuroendocrine response",
are one of the major cornerstones to be considered when evaluating any
health condition. According to a laboratory having conducted more than
200,00 salivary cortisol and DHEA tests, approximately 45-55% of the
population tested displayed adrenal hyperfunction (stage 2 stress),
referred to as hypercortisolemia. Another 15 % suffered from overproduction
for such a prolonged period of time, adrenal fatigue set in and cortisol
production became debilitated and inadequate (stage 3). In basic terms,
approximately 70% of the population contends with a level of stress
capable of setting the stage for serious illnesses.
Are the Stressors?
A stated previously, the neuroendocrine response, though short term
by nature, is an accumulative process that varies for individuals depending
upon their genetic tendencies, temperament and exposure to numbers,
severity and chronicity of stressors. These stressors are categorized
Trauma, burns and injuries requiring emergency medical attention evoke
an exponentially rapid and large rise in cortisol. The more common
stressors are routine exposure to endurance training or overtraining,
exercise, lack of sleep or poor sleep quality, graveyard shifts, long
work hours, lazy postural habits and poor ergonomic work facilities.
This is the most familiar category. Out daily conversations and interactions
carry a list of complaints from work and family to financial and social
concerns. Each specific incident carries a little weight but the constant
influx of numerous influences adds to the total sense of overwhelm.
Research indicates major life changes carry an enormous impact with
emphasis on death of a loved one, divorce, moving, job loss, legal
entanglements and financial loss. Careful consideration of these factors
is crucial for an accurate evaluation of any illness or symptom.
Maintenance of healthy cortisol levels is predicated upon the protein
to carbohydrate ratio each time we eat. Different experts vary on
their opinion. Our experience indicates the more severe the carbohydrate
intolerance is the greater the restriction must be when first making
corrections. As the individual's cortisol levels start to return to
normal, we find they can tolerate carbohydrates more efficiently.
However we do not allow then to consume refined carbohydrates; only
complex. Consumption of sugars, breads, pastas, sodas and fruit juices
stimulates an overproduction of insulin and the cortisol response
mechanism. This may eventually fatigue the insulin producing cells
of the pancreas and insulin synthesis may come to a halt as in diabetes.
Cell desensitization to insulin due to increased cortisol levels is
more common. This results in fatigue, depression, increased carbohydrate
cravings and obesity. Trendy diets, weight loss gimmicks, skipping
meals or minimizing food intake yields an elevated cortisol response.
Other important chemical influences are the pollutants from industrial
waste or production, herbicides and pesticides in our food and the
side effects of medication.
Hypercortisolemia carries a heavy metabolic price tag. Quite often,
diagnosis of chronic illness ignore the neuroendocrine response and
offers less than optimal opportunity for corrections. Investigations
document the strong influences of the neuroendocrine response in the
and autoimmune disease-shut down conditioning of immune cells
illnesses-depletion of intestinal immune functioning makes the body
vulnerable to asthma, allergies, IBS, colitis, candida, parasites
disease-hypertension, atherosclerosis, ischemic heart disease
conversion of T4 to T3 is blocked.
wound repair- skin. Muscles and tendons
dysfunctions-ammenorhea, PMS, polycystic ovary syndrome
Alzheimers disease, hyperactive thought process, poor memory
Modification of lifestyle and common sense is always the best choice.
However, certain fundamental changes are required to strongly offset
and correct imbalances incurred. This includes
Eliminate refined foods, sugar foods and drink, trans-fats and fried
foods. Combine proteins, fats and complex carbohydrates in proper
ratio for your specific needs.
Supplementation should be done under the direction of an experienced
practitioner. In a small number of situations, hormone utilization
may be necessary for a very short time. This must be carefully scrutinized.
Find a form of aerobic exercise conducive to your needs. Upon reaching
your target heart range, maintain this level for a minimum of 20-30
minutes. More than 40-50 minutes may re-introduce the stress response.
Develop a balance between work and play. Relaxation may be achieved
through meditation, biofeedback, prayer, breath work, or some time
alone. Developing personal hobbies and creative interests are beneficial.