By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Ever stop and measure the stress in your life? Did you know that your reactions to stress can make you seriously sick and shorten your life? Take a self-assessment questionnaire here to help figure out your stress level.
Too Much Stress… A Massive Power of Self Destruction
“If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress and tension. And if you didn’t ask me, I’d still have to say it.”
− The late comedian George Burns, who lived to 100
When I was 13, my paternal grandmother died from a massive stroke. I remember asking my father what had caused her stroke. He explained that the oil burner in my grandmother’s house had started smoking and she became emotionally upset about it. Within a few minutes she became confused, and then collapsed to the floor.
I recalled the incident later when I studied the psychological connection to physical disease. I realized that my grandmother’s intense reaction had lit a lethal fuse.
This event in my youth remained in the back of my mind when, as a practicing physician, I repeatedly asked patients about the stress in their lives. The answers I heard over the years cemented my understanding of just how powerful stress and emotions were as contributing factors to not only heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke, but to the erosion of health in general.
Stress is a weapon of mass destruction. You have to prevent it from destroying you!
Most people, including doctors, don’t really appreciate the power of stress and what it can do to your body. I’ve seen the fallout too many times myself to have any doubts about its lethality. Most people trivialize stress, brush it off or underestimate its potency. “I’m just a little stressed,” they’ll say, as if chronic stress equates to caffeinated edginess. It doesn’t. It is responsible, in fact, for 75 to 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians.
The following information will tell you why this is so, and what you can do about the stress in your life.
What is Stress?
Stress is a measure of your mental and physical resistance to circumstances beyond your control. Stressors are threats, demands, or changes to which you attach special, significant importance, and with which you may struggle or feel uncertainty.
Common stressors include the loss of a vital connection through death or the emotional longing for someone who is unavailable, especially a spouse or family members; financial distress; being overworked at your job, at home, or in your studies; caretaking; workplace and personal relationship struggles; divorce; and other fears of loss and inability to meet external demands.
How Acute Stress and Chronic Stress Affect You
When you encounter a stressful situation, stress hormones flood your bloodstream so that you can respond quickly and with strength. Watching your child blindly run across a busy street, for example, might induce a hormonal response that enables you to catch your youngster before any harm is done. Specifically, your pituitary gland discharges ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) into the bloodstream. ACTH, in turn, catalyzes the release of two catecholamine hormones, epinephrine (adrenalin) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), from your sympathetic nerves into the bloodstream. Catecholamines, produced by the adrenal glands, serve as neurotransmitters that signal the body to prepare for emergency action.
Physiological changes produced include increased heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and muscle tension that serve to supply adequate blood to your brain and musculoskeletal system. Higher levels of free fatty acids and blood sugar are released to provide immediate energy to survive the perceived emergency. This is what we call the well-known “fight or flight response.”
It is the general absence of an emergency or threat taken in response to some stressor that may wreak havoc with your health. In most emotionally stressful social situations, for example those that result from ongoing work, financial worry, or personal relationships, you don’t actually flee or fight. Instead, you may “suck it up,” and end up storing the stress internally. Additionally, your reaction to the stressor may include feelings of helplessness or futility, which might cause your stress hormones to continue to surge.
Long-term chronic stress can wreck your nervous system through a cyclic adrenaline rush. It can cause oxidative damage to tissues in the body that leads to inflammation. It can stoke symptoms such as headache, achy neck, ulcer, allergies, and diminished sexual desire. Eventually, your body will adapt to a continued state of vigilance by producing an excess amount of the stress hormone cortisol. Too much stress, over time, can exhaust you (you “burn out”), your adrenal glands where cortisol is produced, and accelerate the aging process, harm your immune system, and even shrink vital brain tissue resulting in memory loss and problems with concentration.
This scenario is the leading but often overlooked cause of insomnia and a major contributor to mental ills (depression, obsessive compulsive and anxiety disorders), as well as physical diseases ranging from the common cold, recurrent herpes and obesity, to AIDS and cancer. It is hard to think of any disease in which stress cannot play a precipitating or aggravating role.
What develops is a vicious cycle. Add in sedentary living, sleep deprivation, abuse of stimulants, hostility, smoking, social isolation, and an unhealthy diet, and things really do go downhill.
Can Stress Kill You?
Absolutely…Acute stress is the leading cause of sudden death, especially in young healthy people with no evidence of coronary disease. But it can fell people at any age. My grandmother is an example.
Chronic stress causes heart disease. It is a clandestine cause − not fat or cholesterol − of heart attacks and arterial disease. It contributes to high blood pressure (hypertension), a risk factor for cardiovascular problems such as heart failure and sudden cardiac death and heart enlargement.
Long-term depression significantly increases the risk of heart disease. Among other effects, it actually triples the disease producing effect of smoking.
In cardiology, stress is a grim reaper that abruptly ends life by rupturing unstable plaque in a vital vessel or by triggering a lethal disturbance in heart rhythm.
When you get fired up emotionally, you’re putting a torch to your arteries. Medical research has repeatedly documented the danger of anger, chronic stress, and the negative emotional states. Yet these risk factors are rarely addressed by doctors.
How We React to Stress
Stress comes and goes in all our lives. Your ability to adapt well to stressors is key for a good quality of life and health preservation. If you don’t adapt, stress can surely kill. I have no doubt whatsoever.
Upon encountering stressors you have two choices. You can adapt and “go with the flow” by doing something to create change or otherwise ameliorate the situation. Or, you can “mal-adapt” by withdrawing or pushing beyond normal expectations in an effort to make the stress disappear. Sometimes “easier said than done,” adapting may require repeated conscious effort.
Opting for unhealthy coping strategies, such as abusing drugs or alcohol, overeating, or overworking, can pile on yet more stress. Even the medication that doctors prescribe for stress can add to the pile. Most physicians, in fact, have little training in recognizing stress or treating it, other than to prescribe a tranquilizer, anti-depressant, sleeping pill – or perhaps all three. Such band-aid approaches can cause additional stress because of dependency and side effects that are then treated with even more drugs that create still more side effects. Taken habitually, they all add a layer of toxic pharmaceutical stress that a strained body has to deal with.
Less Stress Promotes Longevity
Every time a particular stressor challenges you, you are given the opportunity to choose to adapt healthfully.
If you want to live longer, you better learn to defuse your stress. Scientific evidence has surfaced that stress reduction bolsters longevity by directly impacting your DNA in a favorable way. That revelation comes from the many years of work by three American geneticists who won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. Their research (Epal, et. al) involves the study of telomeres, the tail portion of chromosomes that controls the lifespan of cells and their division. These protective structures look something like the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces but act like guardians and timers of cellular aging. As the aging process progresses, telomeres shorten. At some point this shrinkage contributes to cellular senescence and has been associated with many degenerative and age-related conditions.
The research suggests strongly that reduction of stress may help contribute to enhanced longevity and slowing down the telomere attrition. Among the most fascinating studies, Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., one of the Nobel Prize winners from the University of California-San Francisco, organized a study of women caring for children seriously compromised by chronic illnesses and disabilities − talk about incredible stress! − and compared them to mothers of healthy children. When the scientists scrutinized the telomeres by examining blood samples, they found significantly shorter lengths in the mothers most traumatized by their situations.
The researchers wanted to investigate the hypothesis that stress impacts health by affecting the rate of cellular aging. Their study provided evidence that long-term exposure to stress decreases telomerase, the enzyme that provides protection for the telomeres. A shortage of the enzyme results in telomere shortening, leading to accelerated aging through premature cell death.
The stress, they said, not only lowered telomerase activity and shortened telomeres but also generated higher oxidative stress. All of these factors are “known determinants of cell senescence and longevity. Women with the highest levels of perceived stress have telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of at least one decade of additional aging compared to low stress women. These findings have implications for understanding how, at the cellular level, stress may promote earlier onset of age-related diseases.”
We all know people who are chronically stressed. They tend to look haggard. Now, thanks to the telomere researchers, we are able to understand more of the exact mechanisms of how stress works − and kills − under the skin.
The attention and acclaim from this line of research hopefully will revive medical interest in dealing with stress in safe, effective, and uplifting ways, beyond just the business-as-usual pharmaceutical approach, which has so many side effects.
Years ago, before the American Heart Association finally identified “stress” as an independent factor for heart disease, I used to supervise workshops to help local cardiac patients learn to identify their stressors, as well as discover interventions to alleviate the stress. Over the thirty or so years since, medical science has accumulated indisputable evidence that stress reduction lowers blood pressure, relieves physiological strain on the heart, and may even save your life. Now we are learning the impact of stress down at the DNA level.
What to Do When You’re Stressed
We all need to find our own personal antidote to stress and not take it lightly. For me, it’s walking on a daily basis with my pet Chow Kuma and doing yoga. Whenever possible, I have gotten away from my many professional and business activities to pursue my favorite pastime: catch-and-release bone fishing. I basically disappear for a few weeks with wife Jan in a warm and sunny vacation spot, and spend time wading and fishing offshore. It’s a moving meditation for me.
What’s your stress-busting method? There’s a lot to choose from. Meditation. Yoga. A hobby. Dancing. Playing music. Playing or watching sports. Playing with the kids or grandkids. Crossword puzzles. Knitting. A hobby. They are all out there.
And be sure you laugh a lot – a great form of stress release!
And reconnect yourself to the Earth through Earthing (grounding). This simple practice allows the Earth’s natural and gentle electric energy to flow into your body where it calms the nervous system, promotes sleep and better blood flow, reduces inflammation and pain, and increases your energy. It’s as easy to do as being regularly outside barefoot on grass, dirt, stone, and sand. But that may not be practical for many people, and certainly not in cold, winter weather. Conductive Earthing sheets, mats, and bands are commercially available to allow you to soak up healthy Earth vibes and improve your health. This is a major health breakthrough and I don’t know an easier way to improve your health and lower your stress.
Do I believe you can lengthen your life if you de-stress yourself? Absolutely. I’ve observed many times how it shortens life.
Whatever you do when you’re stressed, make it a regular fixture on your path through life.
References and Resources:
- The American Institute of Stress
- Sinatra ST. Heartbreak & Heart Disease.
- Sinatra ST, Roberts JC. Reverse Heart Disease Now.
- Sinatra ST. Lower Your Blood Pressure in Eight Weeks
- Ober C, Sinatra ST, Zucker M. Earthing: the most important health discovery ever?
- Epel ES, Blackburn EH, et al. Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress. Proc Natl Acad Sci, 2004; 101(49):17312-15.
© 2014, 2016 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.