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.
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Hey Chris –
I would love to know what your thoughts are on Andrew Bernstein’s theory that there it is not the stressor itself that causes stress but rather the way we choose to react to that stressor. I think other than managing stress my focusing on ancillary tactics such as working out or taking supplements, it seems more effective to tackle the issue that is causing us stress head on in an honest way that can actually lead us to insight rather than just trying to cover it up by improving our lifestyle overall.
what interests me, is the conversation never includes disengaging from the society in question, like it’s not an option. “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society” is a quote I have always valued. I don’t want to learn meditation techniques just to have to cope with a stressful, demanding job. It makes more sense to me just not to have that job in the first place, and adjust my lifestyle accordingly (and still learn the meditation). You’ve got 80 years round about. How will you use them?
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I see what you mean Chris how when you write about stress you get a lukewarm response, I’m the 9th comment on this 2 year old post wow! For me in my practice since focusing on educating patients on psychoneuroimmunology linking to their aches and pains is a light switch that yes that ‘thing’ you went through can hurt your body. Personally I have experimenting with trying 3-5 minutes of mindfulness meditation training per day and using Vojta Therapy both on myself and patients. Adding a paleo eating style is additive as reducing nutritional stress. +1 for this article from me.
I suspect mindfulness meditation will be one of the techniques you talk about. It has helped me manage my stress tremendously.
I’ll be interested in your supplement strategy.
And I didn’t even check the date on this article!
I am working with a Biofeedback Device called the Indigo. This Biofededback is like no ohter, it works great with helping the body to deal with all most all stress. I have some information on my website.
I look very forward to your next article. I’ve had adrenal “insufficiency” for a couple of years– as well as hypothyroidism (for probably 6-1/2 years, the first doctor kept telling me I was fine. Grr.) I’ve been working on lowering stress and have come a long way (as in I can get out of bed every day and don’t sit like a zombie on the couch after work), but am still careful because if I push things too far, I definitely feel it sooner. I look forward to more substantial things I can do/add to my day in order to get even further. Because as much as I feel “better”, I know what feeling “well” feels like. And I’m not quite there yet.
I believe that completely. I have known of instances where full blown disease, especially auto immune disorders , have flared up under stress. Ive seen this happen in people around me not only with mental stress ,but also with physical stress eg. pregnancy or post operative stress. Just that it really isnt always an easy one to get around, because actual stress is very difficult to assess.
I totally agree with the stress/cortisol connection – I have experienced rapid weight gain with no increase in caloric consumption – but occurred at a times in my life when lots of negative things were happening of which I had no control, AND I had care-taking obligations with small children/parents, etc. which were not “delegate-able” to others. Everyone always says to take time for yourself, but sometimes, it literally isn’t possible.
Check that off the list of things I was cnofseud about.
Thank you for this article on stress. I look forward to the next one. I have a huge level of stress because this summer I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s, candidiasis and adrenal dysfuntion. In Sept. my tall, thin husband was diagnosed with diabetes, and the following month he was diagnosed with pancretic cancer. Our main focus is on helping my husband maintain his health. I don’t have the time or the energy to continue taking my supplements and dealing with my problems. Our Chinese herbal dr. is giving me some herbs for stress, which I know are helping because I am not so tense when taking his brew. Please sign me up for further articles. I am 64 (no health insurance, as my husband lost his job 4 years ago), and live in Sebastopol.