Over the last several years I’ve come to believe that chronic stress – and the cascade of changes it causes in the body – is second only to diet as the primary cause of modern disease. This isn’t just my opinion. It’s supported by mountains of scientific evidence as well as a basic understanding of evolutionary biology and human physiology.
The problem is, nobody wants to hear this. I think it, um, stresses us out to know that stress is so harmful. It’s interesting to note that whenever I write an article about stress, like this one about how stress makes you fat and diabetic, the response is decidedly lukewarm – especially compared to the popularity of articles about diet.
Diet is important. I think you all know how I feel about that. But here’s the thing: it’s not enough.
In fact, I see this in almost all of my patients. Most people I work with already have pretty good diets. Sure, there’s almost always room for some tweaks, but overall they’re doing better than 99% of the population. Yet they are still struggling with chronic health problems – some of them quite severe.
Without exception, these folks have cortisol problems. Either their cortisol is high, low, or the rhythm is out of whack. Remember that cortisol is a hormone that is released during the stress response. Like insulin, we need it in small amounts to function properly, but too much of it can wreak havoc on the body.
Why? Because our bodies aren’t set up for chronic stress. We evolved to deal with a series of acute, short-term stressors. Stress causes the release of cortisol and other hormones. The purpose of these hormones is to prepare our bodies for either fight, or flight. This involves mobilizing stores of fat, protein and glucose to give us the energy we need to deal with the threat.
This all works well if we actually do fight, or run away, because these activities discharge the hormones and the extra energy produced by the stress response.
But these days, we don’t have the chance to do that.
One of the disadvantages of our big brains is that we’ve developed the capacity to stress ourselves out simply by imagining potential threats. Worrying about our financial future or driving in traffic produce a similar hormonal response to what getting chased by a lion would have triggered for our ancestors.
But in our case, those hormones just keep pumping out and building up, and fat, protein and glucose keep getting mobilized without any discharge. And what happens when cortisol builds up and fat and sugar are too abundant? Modern disease happens. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, anxiety, insomnia, gut disorders, autoimmune diseases, allergies and nearly every chronic, modern health problem is directly related to the changes in our body caused by stress.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that stress is harmful. Duh. The question you’re probably more interested in is, “what can I do about it?”
It’s pretty clear that for most of us, reducing stress isn’t a viable option. At the simplest level, stress is what happens when the demands of life exceed our ability to deal with them. Those demands can be physical, emotional or psychological.
Raise your hand if you ever feel the demands of modern life exceed your capacity to deal with them. Yeah, that’s what I thought. That’s probably why people feel disempowered when they read articles like this. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take steps to mitigate the harmful effects of stress. Stress management – not stress reduction – is where we need to focus.
Stress management may very well be the most important thing you can do to improve your health and prevent disease. Yet most of us don’t do it anything about it.
When I talk to people about the importance of stress management, I usually get a nod of the head and an answer like “yeah, I know I’m really stressed out and I need to relax more.” But I can tell they’re not taking it seriously. It’s almost like I suggested they put up their Christmas decorations a little earlier, or they wash their car more often, or something like that. “Yeah, I know I should, but…”
Yet these are the same people that are taking 23 different supplements, following a strict diet and exercising every day at 6:00am. Clearly lack of motivation isn’t the issue.
If stress is what happens when life’s demands exceed our body’s capacity to deal with them, then we have two options. The first is to reduce the demands. In today’s world, this just isn’t practical for most people. The second option is to increase our body’s ability to deal with the stressors we face. Everyone can – and should – do this.
How? There are two ways, both important. First, we can learn stress management techniques and make lifestyle changes that increase our buffer against stress. Second, we can use supplements and herbs to support the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA), which governs our stress response. I’ll discuss specific strategies for both in a future article.