Stress; Impact on Health and Disease

Stress is something that we all encounter daily in our lives, yet, may not realize the true health implications.  This stress response is the reason why we adapt and hopefully overcome new challenges, whether if that is a new task at work, a new exercise routine, or environmental changes.  It is what hopefully makes us stronger, more resilient. Those stressors create a stress response in our body, which then we hopefully adapt to over time.  The question is how much stress is our body supposed to handle, and how does chronic stress exposure impact our health and disease occurrence?

Stress and Impact on Health and Disease
Stress and Impact on Health and Disease

The stress response in your body is a complex pathway of events that has been heavily researched for many decades.  The response basically entails the release of hormones by your body, including cortisol from the adrenal glands, which then has a cascade of subsequent events impacting other hormones, blood sugar alterations, metabolism, epinephrine, heart rate changes, blood pressure and even long term organ damage.  In the short term, it appears based on research that exposure to stress is a good thing, impacting health positively on certain levels.  The problem seems to come when the body is exposed to chronic stress on a daily basis, which then negatively impacts health, contributing to inflammation and disease. In today’s high tech world of cell phones, devices, instant communication, emails and texts, stress levels are running high and it is something that is hard to get away from without going off the grid.

Stress; Local and Whole Body Effects on Your Health

Stress itself, is actually viewed as the body’s response to stressors, which are the creative agents of stress.  Those stressors can range and vary on a daily basis, some being minor, some being more major.  On a low level, changes in weather can actually create a stress response in our body.  So can running out of coffee in the morning, when a body is addicted to it. On a higher level, we have mental and physical stressors which can range from overwork on a mental level to too much or excessive physical work, which can include exercise.  In some cases, we can actually have a combination of both mental and emotional stress.  This is true for some sports such as tennis, where we again have a strong emotional and physical component. Again, in the short term, the stress response in the body helps us to adapt, grow stronger, but in the long term with excessive exposure, we can do potential damage through persistent hormone release, including cortisol.  This persistent elevated cortisol level then can impact other cellular pathways down stream from sugar regulation, contribute to GI problems and ulcers and even impair immune function and healing.

The stress response can be localized or systemic, meaning it can just impact a joint due to repeated use or it can impact our entire body. A person with diffuse anxiety and fear demonstrates a systemic response, with clinical signs evident throughout the body. An athlete or construction worker or even secretary often undergo localized stress responses.  This is evident by a person sitting at a keyboard all day and developing carpal tunnel syndrome due to stress upon the flexor and extensor tendons in the wrist. A tennis player also undergoes local stress responses, as in the case of a shoulder due to repetitive serving, which leads to localized damage and maybe rotator cuff damage.

In many cases of disease, the stress response is actually directly or indirectly involved.  This holds true for conditions ranging from heart disease, to ulcers to even cancer.  In fact, what is interesting is that in many instances of heart attacks and even cancer, most patients when surveyed note a significant emotional event in the not so distant past.  Emotions are often highly tied in with stressors, and likewise can and do create a stress response within our body.  It is easy to deny that stress exists in our life or is the potential blame for our health problems, but more likely than not just because we believe it not to be true does not mean that is so.

Stress and Interpretation of Events

The stress response is an interesting phenomenon.  In many articles on stress in the literature, some researchers will note that a continued stress response in the body actually sets us in a wrong ‘groove’, if you will, continues to push us down a wrong path. In those cases, researchers have shown that exposure to a new stressor may actually push us out of that groove and onto a new path.  This was shown in early years with electric shock therapy, creating a new stressor in that patient and essentially resetting the dial. In others, many find extreme sports such as base jumping or parachuting, as examples, help them to re-achieve balance.  Some might find that jumping off a 300 ft tower would be petrifying, creating a negative stress in ourselves, while in others, that stress response is exhilarating.  It is really dependent on our personal view of that stressor, which then dictates our bodies response to it.  In most cases when talking about stress, we describe things as eustressful or distressful, either being good or bad. No one thing is either good or bad, but more so dependent on the individual as to how they view it and react to it.

It is also interesting to note than when a person is under stress, often times certain health conditions become worse, even just temporarily.  This can be noted in an increased soreness to a prior neck condition, joint ailment, allergy, or even a flare up of a prior health condition.

It is easy to see how certain situations, mental or physical, can create stress in our lives, but we tend to forget how other factors do as well.  It is well known that stress contributes to health ailments, but what we often don’t realize is that once that health ailment develops, it often becomes a stressor of its own, further propelling that individual down a negative path.  We can have a person with a disease ranging from diabetes to cancer, which then creates internal stress on top of what has already occurred.

So, stress can not only strongly contribute to a disease condition, but that disease condition can further aggravate the internal stress response in the patient.  A double-whammy effect in a negative direction!

Our focus, at Nouvelle Research, has always and will always be on the inflammatory response, but you have to realize that stress is directly tied into the process.  This stress response can be obvious, as in anxiety or anger, but it can also be more internal, on a cellular level.  In some cases, it is hard to prove that it is there, but in others not so much.  In many cases, the clinical impact is present, such as gastric ulcers, but yet we still deny that stress is a major factor.

Key Indicators of Internal Stress Include:

  • Elevated resting heart rate
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Sweaty hands or feet
  • Overall increased perspiration
  • Body odor
  • Poor circulation/ cold hands and feet
  • Recurrent or frequent colds
  • Ongoing digestive upset
  • Jaw and neck pain
  • Restless mind
  • Insomnia or difficulty staying asleep
  • Immune related conditions (allergies, skin problems, recurrent infections)
  • Reduced libido
  • Anger, anxiety, depression
  • Ongoing fatigue

In reality, it can be difficult to change how a person responds to a stressor, at least in most cases.  Through counseling, meditation, or deconditioning you can improve how the mind reacts to a stressor, but more often than not, our goal is to improve the way the body reacts to that stressor or at least strengthen its ability to respond and adapt.

You can help to modify this stress response, and support the body, through the targeted use of herbs referred to as adaptogens.  The number of adaptogenic herbs likely ranges in the hundreds, including those from Curcumin to Ashwaghanda. Most of these herbs help to balance negative pathways turned on by repeated stress, including pro-inflammatory pathways. Others actually provide additional antioxidant protection to cells, helping them to rebound and recover more fully.  Then there are some that actually show the ability to impact adrenal gland function, strengthening it, and promoting healthy levels of hormones, including cortisol.

You have to remember that even in the earliest studies on stress by Hans Selye, it was quite obvious that the stress response led not only gastric ulcers, but also immune dysfunction or suppression of the immune response.  What you don’t realize or see, though, is that this negative event, if persistent over time, actually can impact not only normal organ function, but also negatively impact other hormones in the body from estrogen, testosterone to even thyroid hormones.  So, we can have a male with testosterone concerns, a woman with menstrual difficulties or even an overweight person with thyroid deficiencies and quickly see how the stress response can play a major role.

Options for Better Management of Stress

There are many methods for you to manage stress and curb the negative effects.  These include:

  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Healthy Eating Patterns
  • Focused Mind Patterns
  • Reduce primary stress (job change, marital change, life change)
  • Adaptogens

Adaptogens are herbal options that enable us to control that stress response, or in other cases, reduce the impact on the body on a health level. There are literally hundreds of adaptogenic herbs at our disposal.

There are secondary adaptogens, including Curcumin, Boswellia, Spirulina, Alfalfa, Marshmallow, Aloe which provide cellular protection against stress through management of inflammation, antioxidant support and even nutritional value.  This is extremely important because by using these herbs in your daily regimen, you are reducing damage inflicted by stress.  You have to look at at your body as being full of cells that are like little engines, producing energy. In times of stress, especially chronic, those ‘engines’ can become overwhelmed and fatigued.  Proper nutrition and targeted secondary herbal adaptogen therapy, helps you to continue to provide for those cells, giving them what they need to function and recovery from daily stress.

There are also primary adaptogens including Ashwaghanda, Schisandra, Cordyceps, Lemon balm, Bacopa and many others that can provide direct benefits to the stress response, by downregulating it. This means they have the ability to impact the hypothalamic-adrenal axis (HPA), normalizing stress hormones including cortisol. Most of these herbs also have the added benefit of down-regulating inflammation, providing antioxidant support and even impacting normal circulation.

The bottom line here is that stress plays a major role in health and disease.  The astute individual is the one that recognizes this and implements means of controlling it, whether if that is via stress reduction or supporting the body to overcome those stressors.  We have literally hundreds of herbs with benefits as adaptogens, helping the body to cope, adapt and overcome. Powerful options that must be taken advantage of. Which option do you choose?

Options to help you manage the negative impact of stress:

Your health is a choice!  Take a pro-active role and take charge of your own health!


Author:  Tom Schell, D.V.M., CVCH, CHN


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