top of page

Stress Can Make Us Sick

A critical shift in medicine has been the recognition that many of the damaging diseases of slow accumulation can be either caused or made far worse by stress.

Since the twentieth century, and the addition of rigorous science we now have extraordinary amount of physiological, biochemical, and molecular information available as to how all sorts of intangibles in our lives can affect very real bodily events.

This can include emotional turmoil, psychological characteristics, position in society and how society treats people in that position.

Why is it that our body can adapt to some stressful emergencies, while others make us sick?

Why are some of us especially vulnerable to stress related diseases, and what does that have to do with our personalities? How can purely psychological turmoil make us sick? What might stress have to do with our vulnerability to depression?

Let's take a deeper look

If you are a Zebra running for your life or a lion sprinting for your meal, the body's physiological response mechanisms are superbly adapted for dealing with such short-term physical emergencies. For the majority of wild animals on this planet, stress is about short term crisis, after which it's over one way or another!

When we humans, seat around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the same physiological responses, this can be potentially a disaster when provoked chronically. A large body of evidence suggests that stress related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about paying bills, relationships, work, etc...

Homeostasis - What is it?

The body has an ideal level of oxygen that it needs, an ideal degree of acidity, an ideal temperature, and so on. All these different variables are maintained in homeostatic balance, the state in which all sorts of physiological measures are being kept at the optimal level. The brain, it has been noted, has evolved to seek homeostasis.

How can stress mess around with homeostasis?

A Stressor is anything in the outside world that knocks us out of of homeostatic balance, and the stress response is what our body does to reestablish homeostasis.

When we consider ourselves and our human propensity to worry about ourselves sick, we have to expand on the notion of stressors merely being things that knock us out of homeostatic balance. A stressor can also be the anticipation of that happening . Sometimes we are smart enough to see things coming and, based only on anticipation, can turn on a stress response as robust as if the event has actually happened. Some aspects of anticipatory stress are not unique to humans. Whether you are a human surrounded by a bunch of thugs in a deserted alley or a zebra fat to face with a lion, the heart is probably racing, even though nothing physically damaging has yet happened.

How the body adapts to an acute stressor

Regardless of the stressor, whether we are injured, starving, too hot, too cold, or psychologically stressed, we turn on the same stress response!

The stress response is built around the fact that our muscles are going to work harder, the muscles need energy at this point, in the most readily utilizable form, rather than stored away somewhere in fat cells for some building project next summer. One of the marks of stress response is the rapid mobilization of energy from storage sites and the inhibition of further storage. Glucose and the simplest forms of proteins and fats come pouring out of our fat cells, liver, and muscles, all ti stoke whichever muscles are struggling to save our neck!

If our body has mobilized all that glucose, it also needs to deliver it to the critical muscles as rapidly as possible. Heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate increase, all to transport nutrients and oxygen at greater rates.

Equally logical is another feature of the stress response.During an emergency, it makes sense that our body halts long-term, expensive building projects. If there is a tornado bearing down the house, this isn't the day to repaint the garage. Thus, during stress digestion is inhibited, there isn't enough time to derive the energetic benefits of the slow process of digestion.

The same thing goes for growth and reproduction, both expensive, optimistic things to be doing with your body, especially if you are a female!

During stress, growth and tissue repair is curtailed, sexual drive decreases in both sexes, females are less likely to ovulate or to carry pregnancies to term, while males begin to have trouble with erections and secrete less testosterone.

Along with these changes, immunity is also inhibited.The immune system, which defends against infections and illness is ideal for spotting tumor cell that will kill you in a year, or making enough antibodies to protect you in a few weeks, but is it really needed this instant? The logic appears to be the same, look for tumors some other time; expend energy more wisely now!

During stress energy is mobilized and delivered to the tissues that need them, long-term building and repair projects are deferred until the disaster has passed.

Do you have daily emergencies?

If you experience everyday as an emergency, you will pay the price. If you constantly mobilize energy at the cost of energy storage, you will never store any surplus energy, you will fatigue more rapidly, and your risk of developing a form of diabetes will even increase. Chronically activating cardiovascular system is also going to happen and this will result in high blood pressure, this can lead to cardiovascular disease.

Another huge issue is reproductive disorders, in females, menstrual cycles can become irregular or cease entirely; in males sperm count and testosterone levels may decline. In both sexes interest in sexual behaviour decreases.

There are so many more factors that could damage our health if we are constantly under stress!

What does stress look like?

Sitting frustrated in traffic jams, worrying about expenses, mulling over tense interactions, arguing with your partner, training, lack of sleep, too much alcohol, too much caffeine, I could be here all day.

The fact is if you repeatedly turn on the stress response, or if you cannot turn off the stress response at the end of a stressful event, the stress response can eventually become damaging.

Chronic or repeated stressors can potentially make us sick or can increase the risk of getting sick.

Coach HB

A lot of this information was taken from the book Why Zebras Don't Have Ulcers by Robert M Sapolsky

28 views0 comments


bottom of page