How Stress Leads to Disease
In my never-ending search for longevity, the latest health techniques and technologies, a healthy gut and brain, a mouth free of inflammation and infection, I have come to the conclusion that the nervous system may be the most important of all.
Now comes a book about the NuCalm technology by Dr. Michael Galitzer and Larry Trivieri Jr.—A New Calm: A Story of Breakthrough Neuroscience Technology Patented to Quickly and Naturally Reduce Stress and Improve Performance. One sentence captured the essence of stress and the need for a healthy nervous system:
“One of the things you learn very quickly if you study stress dynamics is—the higher the stress, the poorer the blood flow is to the prefrontal and frontal parts of the brain. These areas are where you can make the most intelligent decisions and where learning takes place.”
To quote as follows from A New Calm:
What is most important to your health is how you respond to stress, and that is governed by the autonomic nervous system. It regulates your next breath, your next heartbeat and your blood pressure, like an automatic or subconscious system. There are two parts to it: the sympathetic, which is your left brain, action-oriented and performance nervous system; and the parasympathetic, which is your right brain, creative, relaxation and regeneration nervous system. If compared to running a hundred-yard dash, your sympathetic would be how fast you can run the race and your parasympathetic would be how long it takes you to get your breath back…
Autonomic nervous system dysfunction, or dysautonomia, negatively affects the nerves that carry information from the brain and spinal cord to the heart, bladder, intestines, sweat glands, pupils, blood vessels and especially the vagus nerve.
There is a wide range of health concerns created by autonomic dysfunction, which might include excessive fatigue and thirst, excessively high or low blood pressure, irregular heart rates, difficulties breathing or swallowing, constipation and other gastrointestinal problems, bladder and urinary problems, and sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction in men or vaginal dryness and orgasm difficulties in women. Autonomic dysfunction also can be a factor in chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and interstitial cystitis.
The area of the brain that regulates all of these functions contains a group of motor neurons known as the nucleus ambiguous, which Dr. Holloway described as “the Nile source point of the entire vagus nerve system…”
As important as the immune system is to good health, there is another system within the body that is equally, and perhaps even more, important. This is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, called the HPA axis, which is a key part of the hormonal system.
The purpose of the HPA is to spring into action at the first sign of any external threats to the body. With no threats, the HPA axis is in what might be described as idle mode. This allows the rest of your body to flourish the way that nature intended. However, when the hypothalamic center in the brain perceives an outside threat, it signals the HPA axis to do its job. This is the fight-or-flight response.
As soon as this signal is given, your body’s adrenal glands increase production of cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones, releasing them into the blood stream. Once this happens, blood vessels that supply oxygen and nutrients to your cells and organs are constricted so that more blood can flow to tissues in your extremities. Necessarily, when you see a threat, you must quickly use your arms and legs to fend off external attacks or get out of harm’s way.
Prior to this response, the blood in the body is concentrated in the abdominal visceral organs: the adrenal glands, kidneys, liver, gall bladder stomach, intestines, colon and appendix. These organs are responsible for digestion and absorption of food and nutrients, for excretion, and for various other functions that provide proper cell growth and production of cellular energy. As blood rushes to the tissues of the arms and legs, the visceral organs cannot function at 100 percent, causing all growth-related activities in the body to be limited. As you can imagine, if this response continues for sustained periods, all of those activities will start to suffer…
Interestingly, actual physical danger is not necessary to trigger the fight-or-flight response. Your thoughts and beliefs can trigger it, too. Simply put, if you habitually focus on limiting or negative thoughts and beliefs, your body can behave as if it is in danger. Although the adrenaline rush caused by an actual physical threat usually doesn’t occur, the other aspects of the fight-or-flight response still take place and, moreover, persist for long periods. This results in the chronic production of stress hormones.
Chronically elevated stress hormones cause a chronically suppressed immune function, leading to a greater susceptibility to infectious disease. Furthermore, because of how chronic stress negatively impacts the visceral organs, many bodily functions also are suppressed, setting the stage for impaired digestions, increased muscle tension, and eventual declines in cell and tissue functions.
Now you can understand how stress is a major health risk factor, not only for heart disease and for cancer, but for gastrointestinal disorders, skin problems, neurological and emotional disorders, and a range of conditions related to immune dysfunction including the common cold, arthritis, herpes and even AIDS. Additionally, chronic stress in middle age can play a role decades later in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, most likely because of how chronic stress increases certain hormones that negatively affect the brain.
Sleep disorders are another stress-related problem. To achieve healthy sleep, the normal cycle of hormone production, especially cortisol, must operate efficiently. When you are healthy, cortisol levels are highest in the morning (6-8 a.m.) and lowest in the evening, when they continue at a low level as you fall asleep. This allows your body to release sleep-enhancing hormones, such as melatonin and serotonin, leading to deep, restful sleep.
Stress interferes with this process. When we are stressed, cortisol levels remain high, even into the night, and prevent restful sleep. Over time, the cycle of cortisol production becomes unbalanced. The cycle can even reverse, with cortisol levels spiking in the evenings and falling in the mornings, resulting in feelings of exhaustion. Insomnia and intermittent sleep are both common examples of sleep disorders associated with nighttime spikes in cortisol and other stress hormones, which can include adrenaline.
Moreover, stress compromises the amount and quality of restorative sleep, the only time your cells can remove toxins and repair themselves. As you can imagine, prolonged lack of restorative sleep decreases your cellular health and increases your risk of disease.
Stress also plays a significant role in the onset of anxiety and depression because of how it affects the brain and the nervous system. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness in the U.S., affecting approximately 40 million Americans of age 18 years and older (18 percent of the adult population). Estimates are that at least 17 percent of the U.S. population will suffer from serious depression at some point. Nearly half of Americans diagnosed with depression are also affected by an anxiety disorder.