Another BioCare webinar conducted by Alessandro Ferretti, one of my favourite specialists in Sport and Nutrition, was another great catalogue of information. “Stress Factor: Is modern life fracturing our health.”
As defined in Part 1, stress in itself is not a bad things, for it is a defence mechanism that has done many good for our survival. But unlike zebras, we do not go into a seizure-like fit to evacuate the stress, following a traumatic, worrying, or demanding event. We can carry the stress for days, by just using thoughts, circling in and out of our conscious mind, or worse ruminating, over and over thinking what we could have done better. Some people are so stress it is all they know and it becomes part of who they are.
Stress becomes a problem when it is taking over your life and subsequently makes you ill. You are no longer in control of your emotions, or your days, or night, and most probably cannot sleep, which make you worry (or stress) even more.
Alessandro Ferretti explains: “Increased Stress results in increased production.” Every one would agree, this is a massive bonus. Think deadline and see how your mind focuses and goes into overdrive. Forget the deadline and let procrastination be your best friend. Right?
Alessandro finishes his sentence: “…up to a point. After which things go rapidly downhill.” This means that once the pressure is too great then abilities, productivity as a whole, dips and now this becomes a problem. Being overwhelmed, loosing control, is just the next step. The brain switches off, flooded with stress hormones, the blood with sugar, since all that your limbs want to do is tense and get ready to run, because danger is imminent.
The point where stress is neither bad nor good, when you mind is clear, and focus greater; when you can achieve much more than you thought you could; when your thoughts are just directed into one goal; when all distractions, and other encumbering thoughts, are for a moment gone. However, that peak, that moment of great clarity and performance, is personal to you. Some people think they are weak and crumble under the slightest load, or surprise. They usually do not do well with surprises, or sudden events. Other people will work through the night because they feel they can carry on and not stopping until they finish it all, usually setting own deadlines so that they can even concentrate harder, and get results faster.
Clearly, this makes stress very difficult to define because it is so very different for each of us, and the way we react to it even more so. But the worse is, we can actually worry in anticipation of a stressful, or challenging event. We are the only animals on this planet to do this: experiencing wildly strong emotions linked to mere thoughts: we have created “psychological stress”
And the problem is that now it has generated a pandemic of stress-related symptoms, and the World Heath Organisation estimates that up to 70 – 90 % of doctor’s visits are for stress related issues.1
But stress was actually identified just over 75 years ago, by Hans Selye (1907-1982), one of the world’s leading authorities on endocrinology, steroid chemistry, experimental surgery and pathology, when as a medical student, observed that patients suffering from different diseases often exhibited identical signs and symptoms. They just “looked sick”. This observation may have been the first step in his recognition of “stress”. He later discovered and described the General Adaptation Syndrome, a response of the body to demands placed upon it, detailing how stress induces hormonal autonomic responses and, over time, how these hormonal changes can lead to ulcers, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, arthritis, kidney disease, and allergic reactions. His seminal work “A Syndrome Produced by Diverse Nocuous Agents” was published in 1936 in Nature.
Still, difficult to explain, stress was defined by Selye, who, at the time, could not come up with a straightforward definition: “Stress, in addition to being itself, was also the cause of itself, and the result of itself.” So he crated the word “stressor” in order to differentiate between stimulus and response. And his legacy allowed for further research, a greater much accurate knowledge of stress, and the consequences of stress, to what we know today.
We all know stress.
We all complain about stress.
We all, at one point in our life, got stressed because of stress, or merely at the thought of it.
But, again, stress and how we react to it, is only personal to each of us. Stressors include: Job pressure, money (financial instability) and social dispositions (loneliness, isolation), health and disease (of self or others, including terminal illnesses), relationship, poor nutrition (including, inadequate nutrition, and excessive use of stimulants, such as caffeine, sugar, processed and refined foods, if you remember, feeding the state of stress by affecting blood sugar levels, sending you on a rollercoaster of highs and lows), media overload, sleep depravation (especially, sleep depravation, for it makes everything worse, or seem worse), etc.
The actual stress response is not such a bad thing. During a stressful even the body switches off, sending oxygen to the primary organs (brain, heart, lungs) so we are prepared to run (and only concentrate on running), and failing that, to not bleed to death (imagine “bites, puncture wounds, scrapes and other challenges to the integrity of the skin and blood”), preventing the body to disperse vital energy, and regulating natural immunity.
Long-term, or Chronic Stress, suppresses or dysregulates immune responses. Because the body does not quite switches back on – and sleep depravation keeps it so – , it is not able to do the tasks it does best: healing and repair.
“Cortisol increases the amount of glucose available to the brain and muscles and limits energy supplied to digestion, growth and reproduction (nonessential, or even detrimental in a survival situation)”
Without healing and repair, inflammatory immune cells are activated, inducing low-grade chronic inflammation (generating very little symptoms, at the beginning). This subsequently also “suppressed the numbers and function of Immuno-protective cells,” explains Alessandro Ferretti, going much deeper:
“Chronic stress hammers away at the cardiovascular system, basically making it work harder and harder.
With the increase in blood pressure that accompanies repeated stress, damage occurs at branch points of the arteries.
Adrenaline triggers changes to enhance blood clotting.
These changes contribute to the development of atherosclerosis.
When the adrenal glands are fatigued they continue to function, but hormones can:
The Circadian rhythm of Cortisol is regulated by the sleep-wake cycle.
Secretions are characterised by a steep increase in the morning, followed by a gradual tailoring off until about midnight (circulating levels are at their lowest).
The adrenal hormones are integrally involved in how energy is produced and where it is allocated.
When blood glucose levels drop, the adrenals release Cortisol which triggers the liver to produce more glucose.
Cortisol increases the amount of glucose available to the brain and muscles and limits energy supplied to digestion, growth and reproduction (nonessential, or even detrimental in a survival situation).
When faced with a stressor:
It is not all about being tired, it goes much deeper than this at the physiological level: In men, psychological stress lowers serum Testosterone levels and alters the quality of sperm (reduced motility and morphology) and in women, higher levels of stress are associated with a longer time-to-pregnancy and an increased risk of fertility.2, 3
Stress also categorically alters digestive functions. The body cannot afford to waste energy digesting or producing enzymes to digest food and detoxify toxins. Motility is also reduced; gastric juices production is annulled and gastric emptying is slowed down, which can lead to putrefaction of undigested food, thus having a direct impact on the composition of the gut flora, which is also altered by the stress response itself.4
It is also with no surprise that chronic over-activation of the stress response (without compensating with relaxation, sleep or recovery) can therefore be harmful. “Stress has been linked to the 6 major causes of death.” Declares Alessandro, giving his solutions:
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
Dr William James (1842-1910)
1. Actor S. (2011) Make Stress Work for You. Harvard Business Review
2. Bhongade, MB. et al. (2015). Effect of psychological stress on fertility hormones and seminal quality in male partners of infertile couples. Andrologia. 47(3), pp. 336–342
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1111/andr.12024/asset/andr12024.pdf?v=1&t=isd1s5mf&s=80b555d7ffbd612f02b5f93ae5fb90c46d983ce1&systemMessage=Wiley+Online+Library+will+be+unavailable+on+Saturday+3rd+September+2016+at+08.30+BST%2F+03%3A30+EDT%2F+15%3A30+SGT+for+5+hours+and+Sunday+4th+September+at+10%3A00+BST%2F+05%3A00+EST%2F+17%3A00+SGT+for+1+hour++for+essential+maintenance.+Apologies+for+the+inconvenience. Last accessed: 25th August 2016
3. Lynch, CD. et al. (2014). Preconception stress increases the risk of infertility: results from a couple-based prospective cohort study—the LIFE study. Human Reproduction. 29 (5), pp. 1067–1075. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3984126/. Last accessed: 25th August 2016
4. O'Mahony, SM. et al. (2009). Early life stress alters behavior, immunity, and microbiota un rats: implications for irritable bowel syndrome and psychiatric illnesses. Biological Psychiatry. 65, pp. 263–267
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