Stress: Understanding Health Accounting



I previously wrote about the impacts of stress on your health in the blog post Stress: The Great Drain On Our Health Account, where I discussed the physiology behind stress, the differences between our body’s two primary operating systems, and the risks of chronically elevated stress hormones. And so, as a follow up to that post, I thought it would be apt to explore some of the ways we can mitigate the damage to our health that occurs as a result of chronic exposure to the rampant stressors that plague modern society.

If you recall from the previous post, I used the analogy of a bank account to describe your health, equating the fight-or-flight system (which is our prevailing operating system when we’re under stress) with a rampant spender, while our rest-and-digest system (which governs our bodies when we’re relaxed) was the fiscally responsible saver. The bottom line, as it were, is that if we’re hoping to make it into retirement with a healthy savings, we need to manage our spending and make regular contributions to our savings account. 

So, how, exactly, do we do this? 

Well, the short answer is… it depends. The long answer is, there are a number of ways to increase our health balance, and the relative effectiveness of each depends on the individual’s experience of and response to stress.

In order to really understand this, we first need to understand from which account our fight-or-flight system is drawing the funds that it is so frivolously spending. As I mentioned in the previous post, the primary mediators of our fight-or-flight system are stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The release of these hormones is one of the final steps in an intricate “stress response” cascade that involves the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. To keep with our bank account analogy, it’s as if you’re trying to wire money from one place to another. The hypothalamus initiates the process, sending a request (via hormonal messengers) to the pituitary, which in turn signal the adrenal glands to release the funds – adrenaline and cortisol – which can then be “spent” launching a stress response – increasing heart rate, raising blood pressure and elevating blood sugar. The intricate wiring system, known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, connects the central nervous system and the endocrine system, and allows for something perceived by the brain (i.e. a hungry lion) to initiate a bodily response (i.e. run, you fool!). 

The purpose of the HPA axis is to ensure that we are able to respond to stressors and adapt to our environment. It’s meant to be an emergency fail-safe – after all, the banking fees associated with those wire transfers add up. However, with the constant drive to do more, and acquire more and be more that seems to underpin modern society, our lives are becoming more and more hectic and we are spending more and more time in a stressed state. This shift in function of our stress response – from an acute-phase reaction to a chronic operating system – led to the development of a groundbreaking theory on the body’s response to chronic stress and how chronic stress can lead to dysregulation of the HPA axis.

According to General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), the body responds to stress in three stages: alarm, resistance and exhaustion. 

The alarm phase is really the body’s appropriate response to stress. It’s the initial, immediate reaction to a stressor and activates the fight-or-flight response. The goal of this phase is to mobilize funds (energy and physiological resources), enabling you to spend on neutralizing the threat (kicking some butt or high tailing it in the opposite direction). The side effects of this response stem from the under functioning of the rest-and-digest system; agitation, insomnia, lowered immune function and poor digestion. This is an expensive system to run, but when stressors are brief and intermittent, the system has a chance to reset and the body is able switch back into savings mode and replenish the account.

The resistance phase occurs when stressors accumulate and the stress response is sustained. Much like we can develop a tolerance for drugs and alcohol, when we are chronically exposed to stress hormones, their effectiveness beings to wane. Where as there was an intense burst of energy that accompanied the initial response, it’s as if inflation has taken it’s toll and our health dollars aren’t going as far as they used to, leaving us fatigued, irritable and anxious.

Finally, the exhaustion phase occurs when our spending spree has drained our accounts and depleted our resources. In the absence of available funds, our adrenal glands aren’t able to meet the requests of our hypothalamus and our accounts enter into the red, putting us at risk for chronic disease, illness and infection.

Chronic stress is implicated in a multitude of health ailments, the realization of which gave rise to the term ‘psychosomatic disorders’ – literally meaning, illnesses that involve the mind and body. More and more conditions are falling under this category as research continues to show the immense impact our mental state has on our physical health. Everything from digestive disturbances (such as irritable bowel syndrome, constipation and peptic ulcers) and hormonal disruption (including diseases like diabetes, adrenal fatigue and PCOS), to cardiovascular disease (such as hypertension, hypercholesterolemia and angina) and chronic pain syndromes (including fibromyalgia, low back pain and chronic fatigue syndrome) have been shown to have a cognitive component, and the list continues to grow. 

Given the immense impact of stress on all aspects of our well-being, it seems fair to say that any prescription for health improvement must include stress management. In the final instalment of this series on stress, we will explore natural alternatives for dealing with stress, from decreasing it’s occurrence and mitigating it’s effects, to supporting it’s function when necessary and cleaning up the mess afterwards.