In the future, stress may come to be seen as the primary contributing cause of most disease. Research continues to link stress to more and more symptoms and diseases, both acute and chronic. Stress is inevitable in today’s world and, of course, we need a certain amount to function. The key is to be able to manage our level of stress.
What is stress? It is our reaction to our external environment as well as our inner thoughts and feelings. Stress in essence is our body’s natural response to dangers, the "fight or flight" mechanisms—the body’s preparedness to do battle or flee from danger. This response involves a complex biochemical-hormonal process, which we will discuss shortly.
Stress in today’s world is mainly a result of continuous high demands that are imposed on us by work, family, and lifestyle, or that we impose upon ourselves through our desire to accomplish. Mild stress acts as a useful motivation for activity and productivity. But when the stresses in our life are too extreme or too many, this may result in all kinds of problems. Some people consistently overreact to their day-to-day life. However, most of us might be overwhelmed only when we have an increased intensity or number of stresses, such as excessive demands all at once leading to a continuous feeling of not having enough time or energy to do what we feel we must do. Others respond stressfully to intense emotional experiences, personal changes, extreme weather, or overexposure to electronic stimuli, all of which can weaken us.
Stress can generate many symptoms and diseases, mediated by changes in immune function, hormonal response, and biochemical reactions, which then influence body functions in our digestive tract and our cardiovascular, neurological, or musculoskeletal systems. A wide variety of problems such as headache, backache, and infection, even heart disease or cancer in the long-term, may result.
Our brain and pituitary gland respond to stress by releasing adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This stimulates our adrenals to increase production of the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Other hormones that affect metabolism and water balance may also be released. Epinephrine and norepinephrine, known as the adrenalines or catecholamines, are the main stimuli to the stress response. They stimulate the heart, increase blood pressure and heart rate, and constrict certain blood vessels to increase blood flow to the muscles and brain and to decrease it to the digestive tract and internal organs, preparing us for the "battle" with the "danger," wherever it is. Adrenaline also raises blood sugar, as it stimulates the liver to produce and release more glucose (and cholesterol) into the blood so our cells will have the energy we need. All of this results in an increased rate of metabolism. Stress experienced around the time of eating thus diverts the energy needed for efficient digestion.
During times of increased stress and greater demand, our body’s nutrients are used more rapidly to meet the increased biochemical needs of metabolism, so we require increased amounts of many of these nutrients. The diet and nutrient plan presented here is specifically designed to reduce these negative biochemical effects of stress. There are also many other important aspects of handling this modern-day problem, primarily psychological and lifestyle approaches to stress management. Soon, there will be a medical specialty designed to deal solely with stress-induced diseases. In fact, most specialties now have some set of symptoms or a diagnosis in their field of expertise related to these psycho-emotional/stress-induced diseases. The problem is that most doctors are not trained to do more than diagnose them, and often these diagnoses, such as "irritable bowel" or "spastic colon," tension headaches, or neurogenic bladder disease, are made primarily by excluding the "real diseases." Often, only tranquilizers, psychotherapy, or biofeedback are available in most circles of medicine, and this approach may be limited. There is a lot more that each of us can do to better manage our stress.
Who will benefit from this Anti-Stress program? It is mainly for those who are routinely subjected to high demands, particularly mental demands, and who suffer from "intellectual performance anxiety." People in this group are mostly office workers, people who must sit and be productive for eight to ten hours a day with little physical outlet, such as the executive or office worker, although they also might be salespeople, flight attendants, mechanics, nurses, or journalists. The Anti-Stress program is also suitable for people undergoing short-term periods of increased stress because of personal changes or other events that increase energy demands, such as divorce or marriage, death of a loved one, relocation, job change, or travel.
Many of the conditions discussed in this chapter are related in some way to stress—for example, athletes experience extra physical stress and executives experience more mental stress; stress is also a factor in the aging process. Stress can occur at all levels of our being. There are physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual stress factors involved in almost all diseases. Particular medical conditions that have a high stress component include asthma and allergies, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases, arthritis, and cancer. Surgery, viral conditions, and environmental chemical exposure may be short-term problems with high stress components. Thus, aspects of this program may apply to many of the other programs. Check other discussions as they may tie into your particular concerns.
TYPES OF STRESS
- Physical stress—exercise, hard labor, birth
- Chemical stress—environmental pollution such as exposure to pesticides and cleaning solvents, and the personal use of chemicals, such as drugs, alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine
- Mental stress—high responsibility, long hours, perfectionism, anxiety, and worry
- Emotional stress—anger, fear, frustration, sadness, betrayal, bereavement
- Nutritional stress—vitamin and mineral deficiencies, protein or fat excesses or deficiencies, food allergies
- Traumatic stress—infection, injury, burns, surgery, extreme temperatures
- Psycho-spiritual stress—relationship, financial or career pressures; issues of life goals, spiritual alignment, and general state of happiness
COMMON STRESS FACTORS
- Attitude toward self
- Personal financial state
- Traffic tickets
- Tests in school
- Meeting someone new
- Raising children
- Demands at the office
- Job and career challenges
- Promotion, job loss
- Emotional challenges—personal relationships, fear, anger, loneliness
- Family changes—marriage, divorce, separation, a new baby
- Physical challenges—weather changes, extreme climates, athletic events
- Health challenges—illness, injury, surgery, chemical exposures
- Life changes—adolescence, aging, pregnancy, menopause.
Please realize, though, that stress is not the situations or incidents themselves; rather, real stress comes from the way we react to them. For stress to arise and negatively influence our health, we must experience something as a danger. When we do, anxiety is generated, which we often experience as fear or a feeling of threat to our survival. If we view stress positively, we see it as simply a survival response. But if we cannot handle the stress, we may experience the symptoms and diseases of stress. Learning to adapt our attitude and find suitable outlets for our stress is a very important long-range plan.
As stated earlier, the normal biochemical response to a sense of danger is stimulation of the adrenal glands to release increased levels of hormones, particularly the catecholamines—epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. The catecholamines are cardiovascular stimulants that increase heart rate, constrict blood vessels, stimulate the brain, and affect every other body system to prepare it for "fight" or "flight"—that is, handle the danger or hit the road. The problem comes in when there is really no physical danger but our body reacts as if there were. Then, if greater physical demands and activity do not provide an outlet for the increased adrenal activity, it may be turned inward and play havoc with our physiology and organs, as well as with our emotions and our mind.
Though all parts of our body are affected by stress, certain areas seem to be more sensitive than others. In my estimation, the digestive tract is the most easily influenced, followed by the neurological and circulatory systems and the muscles which accumulate some of the tensions as well as toxins from metabolism. The psychological outlook and welfare of the individual are also strongly affected by acute and chronic stress.
How the damage comes about involves the mechanisms of constant adrenal stimulation along with free-radical production (see Anti-Aging program for a full discussion) and immune suppression. Stress produces irritating molecules that generate immunological changes, damage cells, and inflame organ and blood vessel linings. Stress responses also "eat up" more important nutrients which can lead to deficiencies and allow the other stress response changes to damage the tissues even more. Stress has been shown to decrease protective antibodies and reduce the important T lymphocytes that function in the cellular immune system. Chronic stress is clearly a culprit in the generation of aging and degenerative diseases.
In addition to the increased demands on the adrenal cortex, certain mechanisms affect the stomach and pancreas and thus our digestion. Stress initially increases stomach hydrochloric acid production, leading to indigestion, heartburn, gastritis, and ulcer problems. With increased acid levels, however, the pancreas is stimulated to release alkaline enzymes to help balance the acidity. With chronic stress, this can lead to hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid) and reduced function of the pancreas. This may result in poor digestion and assimilation of nutrients and thus vitamin and mineral deficiencies as well as the development of food allergies due to improper breakdown of the bulk foodstuffs and the subsequent absorption of larger molecules, which may be immunogenic.
There is also a weakening of the adrenal response with chronic stress, whether the stress is from regular sugar intake (adrenaline helps rebalance blood sugar) or from other physical or emotional demands. When the adrenals do not respond, we may have a more difficult time coping with the stress, and when this inability to cope sets in deeply, we may feel like giving up. We might experience depression, hopelessness, or even death, which can result from the serious diseases that arise with a severely weakened immune system. That is why it is so important to avoid the vicious cycle of trying to meet high demands by pushing ourselves with poor nourishment, poor sleep, and lack of fun. A whole field of medicine, called psychoneuroimmunology, is arising to deal with our new knowledge about the relationship among stress, immunity and brain functions, and disease, examining such problems as AIDS, cancer, and chronic viral conditions. Though we have learned a lot about stress and its influence on disease in recent years, there is still a great deal more to learn regarding the physical mechanisms involved in immune interaction. This, I believe, is going to be the dominant medical field of the future.
STRESS-RELATED SYMPTOMS AND DISEASES
|Muscle tension||Peptic ulcer||Allergies|
|Neck and back pains||Irritable bowel||Asthma|
|Atherosclerosis||Loss of appetite||Nutritional deficiencies|
|High blood pressure||Anorexia nervosa||Premenstrual symptoms|
|Diabetes||Weight changes||Sexual problems|