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STRESS

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.

How 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 and estrogen.
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 stress.
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.

What happens next?

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 levels.
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.

What 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 as

  • Physical
    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, late night
    exercise, lack of sleep or poor sleep quality, graveyard shifts, long work hours, lazy postural habits and poor ergonomic work facilities.
  • Emotional/Mental
    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.
  • Biochemical
    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.

Outcome

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 following:

  • Infectious and autoimmune disease-shut down conditioning of immune cells
  • Gastrointestinal illnesses-depletion of intestinal immune functioning makes the body vulnerable to asthma, allergies, IBS, colitis, candida, parasites etc.
  • Cardiovascular disease-hypertension, atherosclerosis, ischemic heart disease
  • Hypothyroidism-proper conversion of T4 to T3 is blocked.
  • Poor wound repair- skin. Muscles and tendons
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Reproductive dysfunctions-ammenorhea, PMS, polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Detoxification problems
  • Cancer
  • Insufficient prostaglandin production
  • Osteoporosis
  • Depression, Alzheimers disease, hyperactive thought process, poor memory
  • Sleep disturbances

What to Do

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

  • Diet: 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.
  • Behavior: 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. No smoking!