Stress often a poorly understood concept

Published by Dr. Gleixner on Wednesday July 28th, 2010 in Times & Transcript
Are there hidden types of stress that can affect our health? Is stress really that harmful?

Stress levels during the summer can vary tremendously. Sunshine, beaches, camping and social events help keep our mood steady and our stress levels in check. On the other hand, vacations, trip planning and busy schedules can feel like we’re always on the go. Being in go-mode’ can make it harder to evaluate how our lifestyle, our thoughts and our emotions affect our health.

Taking action to make changes in our lives is rooted in awareness. To decrease our stress levels we must first become aware of the types of stress we experience. Some forms of stress cause more health problems than others. Using this column as a guide, let’s deepen our understanding of stress.

Stress is a broad and often poorly understood concept. Simply stated by Dr. Gregory Kelly ND, “stress is what one feels when life’s demands exceed one’s ability to meet those demands.” In a medical sense, stress goes beyond what one actually feels, as it can cause changes in our immune system, disrupt digestive function, offset hormone levels, deplete our nervous system and impact our cardiovascular health.

Individuals each have their own capacity to adapt when faced with stress. But ultimately we all have a breaking point; when stress levels reach a certain threshold, symptoms show up in the body and our ability to cope in life goes down.

Hans Seyle, a Canadian scientist who coined the term “stress,” best explains this concept. In his book The Stress of Life (1956), he provided a model that describes how we adapt or fail to adapt to stress. He termed this the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), and divided the response into three categories: 1) the alarm reaction; 2) the stage of resistance; and 3) the stage of exhaustion. His concept provides an excellent clinical tool in the analysis of a patient’s health status as it is influenced by stress. The treatment goal for many of my patients is to prevent them from reaching the exhaustion stage (when the body begins to breakdown). At that stage, pathological changes take place in the body and can lead to many types of chronic disease.

Now, let’s look at the various ways in which stress can appear in our lives:

1. The stress of feeling out of control: As mentioned in his book “When the Body’s Says No,” Dr. Gabor Mate MD, explains how the worse type of stress is the kind that causes us to feel like we have no control. Examples include health problems, work deadlines, fluctuating stocks and mortgage rates, relationship difficulties, yet another car repair, or a sick child. Elegantly stated by researcher Ronald De Kloet in his journal publication titled Corticosteroids, Stress and Aging (1992), “psychological factors such as uncertainty, conflict, lack of control, and lack of information are considered the most stressful stimuli…”

Taking various steps that allow us to regain control of our lives can go a long way to decreasing the stress response in the body.

2. The stress of feeling lonely: Unsatisfied emotional needs (eg lack of love, friendship, etc…) and bottled up emotions (eg anger, sadness, etc…) are also big contributors of stress in the body. Researchers at Northwestern University (article published in 2006 by The National Academy of Sciences of the USA) evaluated how emotions can affect our health. This study found that “prior-day feelings of loneliness, sadness, threat, and lack of control were associated with a higher cortisol awakening response the next day.”

High levels of cortisol (a hormone produced by our adrenal glands) associated with excessive stress can lead to loss of muscle mass, increased frequency of cold and flus, and can disrupt thyroid hormone. Imbalances in cortisol levels can also help explain changes in sleep patterns. Under normal circumstances, cortisol increases blood sugar levels in the morning enabling us to find energy to start our day. Increased stress, especially in the evenings, can cause cortisol levels to spike too early often between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.. This causes people to wake up at that time and often prevents them from falling back asleep.

Pacing ourselves during the day and working less in evenings therefore can help balance our hormones for the next day.

3. The stress of poor eating habits: Processed foods, eating on the go, and lack of fruits and vegetables can disrupt the digestive system and over time can place a tremendous stress on the body.

Hormones are made using building blocks derived from food. Many patients are shocked to find out that most sex hormones and cortisol are made from cholesterol. For this reason, no-fat or no-cholesterol diets can create hormone imbalances and can offset adrenal gland function.

Starting with a cholesterol molecule, numerous steps are further required to make cortisol. Each step requires specific vitamin and mineral co-factors. A poor diet lacking in vitamins and/or minerals can prevent our body’s production of hormones.

4. The stress of overexercising: Cortisol and adrenaline are released during exercise in proportion to the duration and the intensity of our effort. Studies have found that cortisol levels can remain elevated for hours after the workout. Repeated vigorous workouts without sufficient rest between sessions can result in chronically elevated cortisol. Post-workout fatigue is a key sign that you’re doing too much.

Rather match your exercise routine with your energy levels. If your feeling exhausted already, signing up for a marathon could be a bad choice.

5. The stress of chronic disease: Living day to day with a chronic health condition can also become wearing on the body. Many diseases whether it’s cancer, cardiovascular disease, allergies, arthritis, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, and others, all have inflammation in common. Our body naturally adapts to regulate this inflammation by releasing cortisol in the body. Chronic inflammation (and related tissue damage in the body) leads to chronic increased levels of cortisol.

Being aware of the Top 5 causes of stress is a good first step. Adrenal function and related cortisol imbalances are complicated and should be evaluated based on the greater context of your care. Work with your medical doctor or naturopathic doctor to assess the effect of stress on your health. Addressing the root cause of stress and adopting strategies to decrease stress is paramount. Hormone saliva testing conducted by naturopathic doctors is a useful tool for diagnosing abnormal cortisol patterns that may be missed by conventional blood tests.

Slowing down and striving for a better work-life balance is equally important. Explore and try forms of exercise that helps restore versus deplete adrenal function. Yoga and strength training are particularly supportive. The use of specific vitamins in medicinal doses and individualized herbal combinations that target the hormonal system and bring it back into balance are also very helpful.

* Dr. Martin Gleixner, MSc, ND owns the Moncton Naturopathic Medical Clinic located at 90 Weldon Street in Moncton (382-1329). Fluent in French and in English, Dr. Gleixner offers professional health care for the whole family. Using his unique understanding to learn how your body is working (or not), he creates individualized treatment programs that will make a difference in your health. Are you ready to be healthier? Dr. Gleixner is accepting new patients. Additional information can be found on www.monctonnaturopathic.com. His column appears every fourth week on Wednesdays in Life & Times.

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