The More You Stress, the Faster You Wilt -- Part I

We all know what happens when you cut an avocado in half and leave one half sitting out on the kitchen counter, right? It gets brown pretty quick -- a lot quicker than the half of the avocado you leave sealed in a bag inside the refrigerator.

A flower left in a place with the wrong amount of sunshine that doesn’t get any water is going to wilt faster than a plant receiving the right amounts of light and water. The human body has lots in common with avocados and flowers. More on that later...

CORTISOL

Much like the current beliefs regarding dietary fat, we’ve all been brainwashed to believe that stress is bad and should be avoided at all costs. This message has been widely accepted simply because we are living in an epoch of abundant stress. It’s everywhere -- most of it self-inflicted.

The same flawed logic has been attached to sodium -- sodium is absolutely vital for survival but too much is bad and it’s everywhere so we’re taught to avoid it and that it’s bad.

But stress is absolutely critical for a healthy life. It makes you stronger and helps keep you alive in times of peril. If you were never put under any stress you would just transform into a lifeless blob of mucus and skin tags (there are no randomized controlled trials to back that up -- purely conjecture).

But too much stress all at once or over a given period is as harmful as NO stress.

Let’s take a look at the stress response and what it was designed to do, shall we?

OK -- we’re a human in our “wild” habitat thousands of years ago. We are hungry so we go looking for food. We find a few bugs and eat those -- pick a few berries -- lap water from a spring fed stream. Life is good.

Then -- a rabbit makes a terrible screech from a tree a few yards away and is looking right at you. It’s a rabbit from Monty Python’s Holy Grail

[TIM: it’s a creature so foul, so cruel, that no many has yet fought with it….and LIVED!
SIR ROBIN: I soiled my armor I was so scared -- what’s he gonna do? Nibble your bum?
TIM: he’s got huge sharp, he can leap about …. LOOK AT THE BONES!]

So it’s one of those rabbits -- coming right at you. Inside your body, at that very moment, your fight-or-flight response does its thing. Cortisol and adrenaline are released by your hypothalamus via the adrenal gland that sits on top of your kidney.

Your heart rate and breath rate increase. Blood sugar or glucose is released into the bloodstream to give you access to instant energy (that’s where the superhuman strength comes from). You start to perspire. Bodily processes that don’t require immediate attention are given even less attention -- think immune system, bone formation and digestion.

The memory sections of your brain are primed for action -- which is the body’s way to remind you of this stressful event at a later time so you’ll try to avoid it (like when you touch a hot stove -- you don’t forget that). You’re alert. You’re ready to either run, fight back or do neither and face certain death because that rabbit’s “got a vicious streak a mile wide.”

Cortisol -- or hydrocortisone -- is a vitally important steroid hormone whose main function is to keep you alive in times of stress. It is designed to jump into action when life leaves the road called Status Quo -- when things get nuts.

STRESS

From a physiological perspective, the term stress can mean a wide variety of physical responses to stressors (internal or external) that upset your body’s level of homeostasis (which is the place it strives to be most of the time).

Stress can be broken down into three categories: positive stress, tolerable stress, and toxic stress.

Positive stress is things like healthy exercise, volunteering to complete a tough job at work and completing it, being really excited about riding a rollercoaster then riding the roller coaster, or watching the birth of a child (and for ladies actually BIRTHING a child).

Tolerable stress is a little more severe than positive stress. Sources of tolerable stress are things like death of a family member or close friend, being hit and run over by a car (been there, thank you), being forced to ride that roller coaster, or living through a hurricane. Like positive stress, tolerable stress eventually ends and your body recovers from it.

And finally, everybody’s favorite kind of stress -- toxic stress. Toxic stress is prolonged and chronic, and its sources include things like physical abuse, depression, and traumatic events like war or a terrible accident. Military personnel, first-responders, police officers, firefighters, and trauma surgeons all face this kind of stress on a regular basis.

While we’re at it, I’ll go ahead and say that I’m a big believer in the thought that anything that has an effect on kids also has an effect on adults. That’s not a stretch, right?

That being said, there are all sorts of studies out there showing that kids exposed to prolonged stress in the form of neglect, abuse, maternal depression, or parental addiction have impaired brain architecture and have problems with development, learning, behaviour, and physical & mental health their whole lives.

So too much stress is a very bad thing. And any of the three types of stress can be bad -- it just depends on the dose. For instance, you need a lot more positive stress to have the same effect on your system as 5 minutes of toxic stress. But in the end -- stress is stress, whatever the source.

In Part II of this look at stress, we’ll go over what causes cortisol to be released and how we can lower cortisol levels. In the meantime -- try to eat, sleep, move, and enjoy life like a human and be more like that sealed up avocado in the fridge as much as possible. We'll get back to that analogy in Part II.

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Part II of The More You Stress, The Faster You Wilt coming October 26, 2013...