We all are stressed out at times. Some people are stressed all the time and this is called chronic stress.
Let’s say you were involved in a minor rear-ender accident. It is annoying, but at least you were not injured. But you have to deal with the insurance company, get the repair done and maybe get a car rental during the time of repair. Yes, you may have a few days where you feel that your hands are shaky and your heart pounds, or your sleep may not be restful. But when everything is done things are back to normal. This is an example of acute stress with a shorter running time. It has a limited severity, is an inconvenience, but it does not really affect your body on the long-term.
Let’s assume the car accident was more severe and you received a personal injury with a broken leg. You end up in hospital and the orthopedic surgeon fixes the fracture with a surgical plate. The leg has to be in a cast for several weeks, and you have to use crutches. Every day you feel reminded of the car accident, because it is awkward to walk with crutches. After weeks you notice that you have gained weight. Your doctor is also worried about you because your blood pressure showed higher readings. You do not sleep as well, waking up frequently and having nightmares about another fictitious accident. On top of that you came down with the flu. What happened here? The stress reaction released cortisol, which weakened your immune system and may be responsible for you catching the flu. On the long-term cortisol can also contribute to high blood pressure, but so can alcohol consumption. You may have increased your alcohol intake in the evening to relax more, but with the chronic stress and the cortisol increase this can cause high blood pressure. The weight gain that you noticed has to do with the fact that you cannot work out any more because of your healing leg fracture and you having to use crutches. Inadvertently you may also eat a bit more rich food; a lot of people do that as food can be used as comfort food. And why do you sleep less well? Chronic cortisol elevation leads to lower melatonin levels, as these two hormones are natural opponents. A high melatonin level leads to a low cortisol level and vice versa. With relaxation methods you can lower cortisol and the melatonin level increases normalizing your sleep. Chronically elevated cortisol can also lead to weight gain as sugar is converted into fatty acids that are stored as subcutaneous fat. Muscles can melt down when cortisol is high giving the appearance of spindly arms and legs.
Causes of chronic stress
Holmes and Rahe tested a stress scale in 1970, which has become the standard ever since. You get a certain amount of points for a stressful event, e.g. 100 for the death of a spouse; 45 point for retirement; 23 for trouble with the boss etc. Add up all of the points that are affect you right now; if the total score is less than 150 points there is only a minor risk of getting medical problems from the chronic stress; for 150 to 299 points the risk of illness is moderate and for 300 and more points you are at a significant risk for illness.
There is physical illness and mental illness that chronic stress can cause. Physical illness can be high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries. The long-term risks from this are possible heart attacks and strokes. But chronic adrenalin and noradrenalin elevation associated with chronic stress can burn part of your brain cells in the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex. This can lead to memory loss, spatial memory loss and aggression. Mental illness caused by chronic stress can be anxiety, depression, social isolation, panic attacks and panic disorder. Psychosomatic symptoms can include headaches, back pain, abdominal pain and difficulties concentrating.
Job stress and cancer
Perhaps one of the best examples of job stress and cancer is a study where the amount of breast cancer was correlated to the amount of stress. I discussed this in another blog. Briefly, women with a less responsibility had the lowest rate of breast cancer, but they too had some stress as there was a higher breast cancer risk after 15 years on the job versus only 5 years on the job. The same study showed that women with high responsibility had the highest breast cancer rates. A hormone disbalance can explain this based on high cortisol levels associated with chronic stress. If cortisol is high, the cortisol binding globulin (CBG) increases; this in turn also binds more circulating progesterone, as progesterone attaches to CBG. CBG is a transport protein for both cortisol and progesterone. The end result is that estrogenic compounds get the upper hand, a condition called estrogen dominance. I have explained under the above link that this was the real reason for the increase in breast cancer in the stressed women. Similar mechanisms are causing other cancers to occur more frequently with chronic stress.
Chronic stress and cardiovascular disease
High stress jobs were found to cause a 2.2 to 2.4-fold increase of strokes and heart attacks due to cardiovascular disease when compared to low stress jobs. This was based on a British Medical Journal study in October 2002. As I discussed above under a brief description of chronic stress cardiovascular disease is often what develops as part of chronic stress. People who are under chronic stress feel that they do not have enough time to prepare good, healthy food at home. They tend to eat out more often. Even well educated people just swallow a quick hamburger and other processed foods. This increases the bad fats like trans fats and omega-6 fatty acids in their system causing inflammation of the blood vessels as explained in this blog. The LDL cholesterol and triglycerides get elevated, sugar from sugary snacks oxidizes the LDL cholesterol and your coronary arteries and brain arteries get clogged up. This sets anybody on the downward pathway, and it is now only a matter of time when the chronically stressed person will develop a heart attack or stroke.
Chronic stress extremes: PTSD and burnout in soldiers
Dr. Thierry Hertoghe gave a lecture during the 22nd Annual World Congress on Anti-Aging Medicine in Las Vegas (Dec.10 to 14, 2014). The title was: “Burnout: A multiple hormone deficiency syndrome”. Burnout is the extreme of chronic stress. He said that burnout is a common condition where several hormones are affected, with the cortisol axis being the main one, but other hormone glands being stressed as well. As a result endocrine glands age prematurely. Symptoms are fatigue, exhaustion, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety, depression and aggressiveness. The underlying hormone abnormalities are a lack of cortisol, thyroid deficiency, growth hormone deficiency, testosterone and estrogen deficiency and oxytocin deficiency. Burnout is common in teachers and there is a questionnaire that has been developed for teachers (teacher’s burnout scale) to monitor them whether they are heading this way. Soldiers who return from combative situations often suffer from burnout or from PTSD. Their burnout severity can be monitored using the teacher’s burnout scale already mentioned. In suspected cases laboratory tests that measure hormone levels give concrete answers about hormone deficiencies. Treatment protocols were discussed in detail. Multiple bioidentical hormone replacements are necessary, possibly for prolonged periods, if not life long. In addition supportive counseling sessions from a counselor or psychiatrist will help to tone down increased brain activity and help regain the internal balance. Why is this important? It is important, because hormones are necessary on a cellular level and regulate the energy metabolism of every cell in the body. Also, by recognizing what is going on and helping the affected individuals, a lot of pain and suffering can be prevented.
Accelerated aging from telomere shortening
Chronic stress has been shown to cause telomere shortening. So does a lack of sleep (insomnia), smoking and alcohol overconsumption, all conditions that can be associated with chronic stress. What can we do about this? Learn what shortens telomeres and ultimately your life. Cut out what you can and take supplements that lengthen your telomeres.
Positive thinking combats stress
Negative thoughts are draining you of energy. You want to stay optimistic within what’s reasonable. Be thankful for all the good things in your life. Minimize what’s negative, but think about positive solutions to get rid of energy draining parts in your days. Do this persistently until it becomes part of your life and you will have extra energy that you didn’t waste in negative thinking or by getting caught up in needless anxiety. Worrying does not get us anywhere, but it depletes our energy.
Self-hypnosis is a simple way to allow your whole body to relax. However, the various forms of yoga will do the same thing for you. Meditation is another way of finding peace and tranquility. Prayer is know to help people in sickness and in health. All of these methods will re-energize you. They calm your brain, help you to cope with stress and rebalance your hormones at the same time.
Building social ties and mutually supportive relationships will also build you up. It makes you feel that you belong, you have your place in society, you help others, and they support you.
We need some stress to get us going, but we do not need “distress”. Dr. Hans Selye, the father of the general adaptation syndrome due to stress, gave a lecture about this topic in Hamilton, Ont. in 1977, which I attended. I vividly remember how he projected a picture of his skeleton showing bilateral hip replacements. He said that chronic stress could lead to arthritis. He had developed end stage arthritis in his hips requiring total hip replacements on both sides. He wanted to illustrate that stress leads to physical consequences; it may be a heart attack in one person, a stroke in another, arthritis in a third. Constant overdrive has physical consequences.
Stress can be deadly, particularly if it lingers on and becomes chronic. But we can reorganize our lives to minimize stress. Some people may decide to seek a less stressful occupation. Others may elect to stay at that job, but develop hobbies and get involved in relaxation methods to combat job stress. The key is to start thinking about what stress you may be under and then develop a plan to counter it so you can allow yourself to rebalance your life.