Stress: The Silent Killer

Before there were cars, skyscrapers, Uber eats and cell phones, our ancestors lived a more hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They lived off the land and became one with nature. They hunted the animals of the native lands and forage for nuts, berries, and herbs. The world was a stressful place and they never knew when a neighboring tribe would invade or if they would come face to face with a hungry bear during a hunt. Stress is natural. It sparks several physiological responses within the body to deal with the world around us. Some stress is good. Too much is deadly.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of stress, lets break down the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS is composed of the brain and spinal cord where it receives signals from the outside world and deploys responses throughout the body to carry out different actions. The CNS can be further broken down into two different nervous systems; the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is also known as the fight or flight response center. That is why when you are scared, your pupils dilate to widen vision, your heart rate and breathing speeds up, and blood rushes to your muscles. This is valuable when that bear arrives. The PNS is also known as the rest, digest, and recovery response center. It is activated when the stressor or threat is gone. Your heart rate and breathing goes down, digestion picks up and the body begins to heal. The two work in simpatico as we navigate through the world responding to our surroundings.

Today, our stress is different. It has evolved just as we have in the everchanging world we live in. No longer we are worried about that bear, but now stressed about politics, money, and peer approval. We are in a constant state of stress that has a severely negative effect on the body and mind. We are having SNS responses in our bodies and may not even know it! Let us dive a little deeper on what stress can do to us.

Depression and Anxiety

Depression and anxiety are two peas in a pod. Nearly half of people who are diagnosed with depression also have an anxiety disorder. According to Rachel Katz, MD, a psychiatrist at Yale University, about 7 seven percent of the US population meets the criteria for a major depression disorder at any given time [1]. Add the 2020 pandemic to the pot and all the havoc it reaped upon the population, people who lost their jobs and been stuck at home have no answers to their problems. “When will things go back to normal?” When will my kids be able to go back to school?” “What if I or a loved one gets sick?” These stressful questions can create a downward spiral that could lead to depression. In a 2021 study that surveyed American households, it was found that 41.1% of homes reported symptoms of depression and anxiety in February 2021 compared to only 11.0% from January to June 2019. This is a staggering jump but not surprising given everything that has happened in the last 12 months.

Increased risk of CVD, Heart Disease, Hypertension, Heart Attacks and Stroke

When the body is under stress, it releases cortisol (stress hormone) into the bloodstream as a natural response. Unfortunately, elevated cortisol levels from long lasting stress can increase blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar and blood pressure [6]. These are all common risk factors for heart disease. Prolonged stress can also cause changes in the blood that promote plaque build up in the arteries which can decrease blood flow throughout the body [6]. Even minor stress has shown to trigger poor blood flow which decreases oxygen to the heart and the rest of the body [6]. This can impact how the blood clots by making it “stickier” which increases the risk of stroke.

Increased Risk of Diabetes

Perceived stress is a strong risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown an association between hypertension as well physical activity and body mass index and diabetes [2]. Moderate to high chronic stress levels were associated with a 2.3-fold increase in the odds of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes [2]. Couple poor nutrition and high stress, it is a recipe for a type 2 diabetes diagnosis.

Compromised Immune System

The immune system is a complicated yet fascinating part of the human body. Over centuries it has evolved to defend our bodies against pathogens and viruses. The immune system is comprised of cells, proteins, organs, and tissues working together to protect the body from foreign invaders and damage. Several components of the immune system are associated with stress. During acute stress (lasting a few minutes), our body initiates its “fight or flight” response. The blood levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines which is necessary in the short term as a response to eliminate pathogens and initiate healing [4]. Chronic (long lasting) systemic inflammation is a sign of dysregulation of the immune system and an increased risk of chronic disease [4]. This is a byproduct of chronic stress which leads to activation of latent viruses and the loss of immunological control over viruses. Frequent activation of these tissues results in wear and tear on the immune system [4].

Stress plays no favorites and children are not immune to it. Stress early in development whether it is maltreatment, poverty, neglect or conflict with peers has immunological dysregulation that can be observed in the near and long-term. This has been seen to lower basal levels of cytokines that control immune responses [4].

Those in the advanced age bracket are less able to have appropriate immune responses to stress, especially when it becomes chronic stress. Whether it’s a physical stressors such as getting injured or psychological such as begin unable to care for themselves or others takes a toll on the immune system. Chronological aging plus chronic stress is a recipe for accelerated immunological aging [4]. Research suggests that older adults are unable to terminate cortisol production in response to stress, resulting the immune system becoming “resistant” which leads to accumulation of stress hormones in the blood and increase production of inflammatory cytokines that further compromise the immune system [4].

Decreased Sleep Quality

Stress does not play favorites when it attacks the body, and the candle will begin to burn from both ends. Sleep is where your body does the most healing and recovery, and stress is one of the biggest disruptors of it. In a survey of the American population, it was found that on average, people only get 6.7 hours of sleep per night compared to the recommended 7-9 hours [5]. It was found that 42% of Americans rate their sleep as fair to poor and 43% report that stress has caused them to lie awake at night. It is seen that when stress levels climb, sleep quality lowers [5]. The survey also showed that when people do not get enough sleep, 53% reported that they felt sluggish or fatigued, 38% felt irritable, 29% displayed poor communication and 25% reported having no motivation to take care of personal responsibilities [5].

When comparing individuals who reported getting good to excellent sleep to those who reported poor sleep, it was observed that those who had better sleep quality felt irritable at only 32% vs 45%, lack of motivation at 27% vs 42%, poor relationships with others at 27% vs 50% and skipping exercise at 33% vs 41% respectively [5].

Chronic stress puts a huge wedge between individuals and their sleep quality. If you are not able to get adequate amounts of quality sleep each night, you body will begin to show adverse effects, and this is unfortunately a lesser know fact when to comes to looking at overall health.

How to Deal with Stress in a Healthy Manner

Now a lot of what will be discussed in this section are “no-brainers,” but they take work and most importantly, awareness and discipline.

Exercise

There is no better way to lower stress than exercising. Humans were built to move and in our everchanging society, we are becoming more and more desk bound through our professions. We have become weaker, tighter and immobile. In a meta-analysis that looked 40 different studies on the effect of exercise on stress reduction, it was found that individuals who exercised regularly saw a reduction in overall stress and even bigger reduction of stress in individuals who lived highly stressful lifestyles [1].

Don’t downplay the value of walking. It has been found that even ten minutes of walking can significantly reduce stress. Get up, get moving and get strong. Your mental health depends on it.

Nutrition

You are what you eat and drink. When stress is high, people tend to self-medicate with processed foods and alcohol. Process foods are engendered to high jack your taste buds and “I’m full” signal in your body. It is found that individuals who eat highly processed foods on a regular basis consume up to an extra 500 calories per day. Also, I do not care who says alcohol has health benefits. That is simply not true. Now I am not saying it does not have value, but to say that it is healthy is irresponsible.

Research has shown that there is a correlation between nutrition and stress. Those who have a balanced and healthy diet tend to have lower stress levels than those who do not [7].  

Sleep

As we saw above, stress plays a major roll in the quality of sleep. So, when it comes to sleep, it is important to develop a sleep routine just as we do for when we wake up and start our day. Treat your sleep as a runway. About an hour before bed, turn off all electronics, dim the lights, wash your face, brush your teeth and listen to a podcast or read a book. Taking time to quiet your mind before bed can go a long way in reducing your stress and getting a great night’s rest.

Spend Time with the People You Care About

I know that we are living in weird times and people are being praised for how well they can stay home, but this has a major negative effect on the human mind. We are pack animals that were built off our social interactions, especially with those we love and care about. In a Harvard study that investigated the major indicators of overall health and longevity, it was found that next to proper exercise and nutrition, meaningful relationships ranked at the top when looking at health [3].

Turn Off the News!

This one is going to get preachy, but before we get into the details, let me get my soap box out. The news outlets get the most clicks and views when presenting negative news. They literally make millions of dollars by sucking us in and the negative topics get the most eyes on the programming. Between the pandemic, the election and all the personalities on our screens, there was plenty to be thrown in front of us. Hell, there was a death counter on the news outlets like CNN and Fox for almost a year. If that does not create stress, I do not know what does.

This is not just limited to the mainstream media outlets. The social media platforms are infested with fake representations of real life. People posting their highlights when you are trying to lose weight or the person who is posting pictures of their luxurious car when you just lost your job can deliver a major blow to one’s self-esteem. It is a constant negative feedback look that keeps us spiraling in a pit of stress. So, I HIGHLY recommend shutting off the news and taking a break from social media. Get your butt outside and you will see that the world is much more beautiful and friendly than what is being presented on the news.

Call to Action!

Life is full of stressors; some good and some bad. We all face adversity in different ways, but it is up to us as individuals on how we handle it. We need to be re-acquainted with ourselves and control what we can starting with how we react. Stay health my friends.

Sources

[1] Bonita C. Long & Rosemary van Stavel (1995) Effects of exercise training on anxiety: A meta-analysis, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 7:2, 167-189, DOI: 10.1080/10413209508406963

[2] Harris, M. L., Oldmeadow, C., Hure, A., Luu, J., Loxton, D., & Attia, J. (2017). Stress increases the risk of type 2 diabetes onset in women: A 12-year longitudinal study using causal modelling. Plos One, 12(2). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0172126

[3] Mineo, Liz. “Over Nearly 80 Years, Harvard Study Has Been Showing How to Live a Healthy and Happy Life.” Harvard Gazette, Harvard Gazette, 26 Nov. 2018, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/.

[4] Morey, Jennifer N, et al. “Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function.” Current Opinion in Psychology, vol. 5, 2015, pp. 13–17., doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.03.007.

[5] “Stress and Sleep.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 2013, www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/sleep.

[6] Stress Can Increase Your Risk For Heart Disease

https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?

[7] Wong, Samantha, “Nutrition and Stress,” Canadian Young Scientist Journal, Vol. 2011 Issue 1, p13-19

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