The New Year often brings resolutions of better diet, more exercise and greater personal or professional achievement. To ensure our success, we often go to great lengths managing and manipulating our lives at the expense of rest and relaxation. Unfortunately, although well intentioned, this New Year’s trade-off can place a tremendous amount of stress on the body and may actually increase our risk of ill health and disease.
In the spirit of the New Year and the desire for a new-and-improved you in 2014, lets review stress, its impact upon the body and a few tips to manage stress that can help us live happier, healthier and more active lives.
Stress, more specifically a stressor, is anything that disrupts homeostasis and a body’s stress-response is a means of reestablishing balance. Stressors can be physical or psychological, acute or chronic, and a stress response can even be mobilized in anticipation of stress. A stress response is characterized by the rapid mobilization of energy from storage and the inhibition of further storage. Energy intensive functions like digestion, reproduction, tissue repair, and immunity are inhibited while cognitive and sensory skills are heightened. Together, the body’s response to stress is known as the “fight-or-flight” response, which, interestingly enough, can be more damaging to the human body than a stressor itself. Ultimately, stress increases the risk of getting diseases that make you sick, or if you have such a disease already, stress increases the risk of your defenses being overwhelmed by the disease.
The Master Gland
The human stress response is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which can be broken down into the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic arm of the autonomic nervous system kicks into action during emergencies and helps mediate vigilance, arousal, activation and mobilization. The parasympathetic arm of the autonomic nervous system plays the opposing role and mediates calm, vegetative activities like growth, tissue repair and energy storage. These two systems work in opposition and bring about opposite results.
The brain is the “master gland” of the autonomic nervous system because it can mobilizes a specific response to stress in one of two ways – through neural stimulation or the secretion of hormones. The neural route stimulates the release of hormones by stimulating a “specific” response from a certain gland. The hormonal route sends a chemical message through the bloodstream that elicits a “non-specific” response throughout the body. It is regulated by the hypothalamus, located at the base of the brain posterior to the brain stem, which contains a huge array of releasing and inhibiting hormones. These hormones act upon the pituitary gland to encourage the release of hormones that control the secretion of other hormones from peripheral glands located at various points around the body.
Hormones of particular importance to the sympathetic nervous system and the “fight-or-flight” response include epinephrine, norepinephrine, glucocorticoids and glucagon. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are the chemical messengers that quickly kick various organs into gear (within seconds) and glucocorticoids back up this activity over the course of minutes or hours. These three hormones are released by the adrenals and account for a large percentage of what happens in the body in response to stress. Glucagon is released by the pancreas and helps raise circulating levels of the sugar glucose (epinephrine, norepinephrine and glucocorticoids contribute to this action as well), which is essential for mobilizing energy during stress.
Stress and Immunity
Stress interferes with immune function when the autonomic nervous system sends nerves into tissues that form or store the cells of the immune system that eventually enter the blood stream. Stress can also lead to illness when tissue of the immune system is subject to the hormones that are released into the blood stream by the pituitary gland under control of the brain. It does this by suppressing the formation and release of new immune cells and shortening the time preexisting cells stay in circulation. Stress also inhibits the manufacture of new antibodies, disrupts communication between immune cells, and blocks the body’s inflammatory response that helps rid the body of infection.
The entire immunosuppressive effect of stress works through glucocorticoid activation, which results in a greater release of glucocorticoids that can quickly alter immune function and disease resistance that may increase disease risk.
Simple strategies for coping with stress emphasize the importance of managing feelings of control, predictability, outlets for frustration, social connectedness, and the perception of whether things are worsening or improving. This may be accomplished through exercise, nutrition, meditation, social interaction, and religious or spiritual activity. However, these principles of stress management work only in certain circumstances for certain types of people with certain types of problems. The good news is that once you decide you sincerely want to change, the mere act of making an effort to cope with or reduce stress can do wonders. You’ve recognized there is a problem, you’ve decided to do something to address said problem. According to Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers:
- Hope for the best and let that dominate most of your emotions, but at the same time let one small piece of you prepare for the worst.
- Seek control in the face of present stressors but do not try to control things that have already come to pass.
- Seek predictable, accurate information.
- Find that outlet for your frustrations and do it regularly.
- Find sources of social affiliation and support.
Stress may be inevitable in our fast-paced, results driven society, but it does NOT have to make us unhappy or sick!
Images courtesy of Robert Sapolsky and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers