The Link Between Stress and Illness
Back in mid 2011, whilst studying Intermediate Level HRV (Heart Rate Variability) with Dr Kucera M.D. I first heard the statement that 95% of all disease and illness is caused by stress.
For those of you that don’t know, Dr Kucera M.D. is a leading Research Scientist in the field of Mitochondrial Therapy.
Since then I’ve also heard and seen this statement made whilst studying the work of many others including the world renowned cell biologist Dr Bruce Lipton, PhD.
In fact, even the CDC (Centers for Disease Control in the U.S.) state that 90% of Doctors visits may be triggered by a stress-related illness and a quick search on Google will reveal a whole host of other authoritative sources that have the same or very similar opinions.
Whether or not they agree on the specific percentage or not is irrelevant. What’s important to note is that they all agree that there is a significant link between stress and illness or disease.
Many health experts believe that it’s almost impossible to become ill if you have a strong and healthy immune system.
The problem is…
“Chronic stressors cause elevated stress hormones in the body, leading to immune suppression, the inability to heal and eventually to disease.” – Paul Chek, HHP.
With that in mind it’s pretty safe to say that the management of stress within our lives is very important if we want to maintain or improve our health and reduce our risk of illness and disease.
Managing Stress and Illness
So just by reducing stress, health and wellness will improve, right?
Well maybe but there’s a catch that many of us either overlook or may not even be aware of.
Stress isn’t just the things we consciously perceive to be a problem or stressor in our lives such as a bad day at work, the loss of a loved one, money troubles or the breakdown of a relationship.
Of course the above are stressful events but stress can actually be defined as ANY change in our inner or outer environment.
This means that stress comes in many forms. In the book How to Eat, Move and be Healthy, Paul Chek lists 6 of the major types of stress. They are:
- Physical – The Right Amount of Exercise or Too Little/Much Exercise
- Chemical – Organic Food, Balanced Hormones or Synthetic Drugs, Processed Food, Pesticides
- Electromagnetic – Sunlight or Too Much Sun, Electromagnetic Fields
- Psychic/ Mental – Goal Setting, Positive Thoughts or Negative Thoughts
- Nutrition – Organic Food, Eating for Your Individuality or Eating too Much/Little, Poor Quality Foods
- Thermal – Maintaining Body Temperature or Too Hot/Cold
As you can see, each type of stress has both a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad’ side.
Take Physical Stress for example. Firstly you have ‘good’ physical stress – this is where you’re exercising just the right amount for you. Your energy levels are good. Your workouts are fun. And you’re health, fitness and performance continually improve.
On the flip side you have ‘bad’ physical stress – this can be either under-exercising/moving where you’re at an increased risk of many illnesses and diseases related to a lack of physical activity or you may be over-exercising and at risk immune problems, increased risk of injury and even chronic fatigue.
Our bodies are designed to adapt to pretty much any stressor that’s placed upon them.
But when a particular stressor or the total summation of all stressors becomes too much, that’s when the body begins to break down and repair and regeneration become compromised.
If this cycle is continued for too long a period, then illness or disease are likely to follow.
Surprisingly, not getting enough stress is just as unhealthy as too much stress. We absolutely need stress in order to be our healthiest.
So if we all need stress in our lives in order to be healthy, what’s the determining factor in whether or not a stressor is good or bad for us?
In the words of Dr Kucera himself:
“the most important factor determining health after-effects (disorders) or stress is individual perceptiveness of the organism to the stress.”
Ultimately, what he’s saying is that it’s how your body and it’s systems interpret and respond to all of the stressors it’s exposed to that will determine your likelihood of a health disorder.
Stress, is Stress. It’s form is irrelevant!
At a physiological level the body responds to all stressors in the same way – activation of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and more specifically, the Sympathetic branch of the ANS.
Most of you have likely heard this referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
The role of the Sympathetic Nervous System is to prepare the body to literally ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ (run away) in the event of any stressor which puts the organism (you) at risk.
When this happens, blood is redistributed to the muscles, heart and brain. Bronchioles open to bring in more oxygen, eye pressure increases to improve vision and hormones such as Adrenaline are released. This response ensures we are at our most prepared to either fight for our lives or run for our lives.
It’s perfect. It’s exactly what’s supposed to happen.
This response was developed and perfected by the stressors of our developmental environment over many millions of years during our evolution in order to prepare us for the day we come face to face with the metaphorical lion whist going about our days doing the hunter/gatherer thing – Basically, it’s a survival response.
Back in our hunter/gather days, if you were to be confronted by the likes of a lion or other dangerous predator, you would have the initial “HOLY SHIT, A LION!!” response. Your body would shift in to ‘fight or flight’ mode and your body would then be prepared to either fight the lion or run for your life.
Now assuming you survived, you’ve just experienced a huge stressor and once it’s over you would likely go back home to rest and chill out for a while in order to get over the ordeal you’ve just been exposed to.
This is where the Parasympathetic Nervous System would then begin to prevail over the Sympathetic – The Parasympathetic Nervous System is the opposing side of the ANS to the Sympathetic Nervous System. When the Parasympathetic Nervous System becomes active the opposite physiological responses take place within the body.
For example, blood is now preferentially redirected to the digestive organs and away from the muscles. Blood pressure and heart rate decrease and the body is able to carry out the necessary repair and regenerative processes needed in order to keep the body functioning optimally.
You see, ultimately your body is constantly trying to maintain Homeostasis (balance) between the two side of the ANS.
The problem is, in today’s world the ‘lion’ never goes away so there’s often a prevailing of the Parasympathetic Nervous System over the Parasympathetic Nervous System meaning our bodies are constantly in a Catabolic (tissue destructive) state rather than an Anabolic (tissue repair and building) state.
We’re constantly exposing our our bodies to poor quality, chemical laden foods, poor quality water, negative crap being forced down our throats all day by the media, lack of exercise and movement in general, limiting beliefs, lifestyles and professions that aren’t inline with our true desires, toxic fumes and pollution to name just a few.
It’s this constant bombardment on our bodies that’s the problem, not necessarily the stressor itself.
As well as the total stress load, it’s also our bodies inherent ability to adapt to these stressors and maintain balance within the body that ultimately determines how healthy we are.
Have you noticed how two people that have a very similar lifestyle to one another can have completely opposing levels of health? One of them is able to thrive and the other is constantly plagued by nagging illnesses and maybe even disease even though their lives are very similar. This is because the body only has one capacity to deal with stress and this capacity is different for us all.
This capacity can be referred to as your ‘Functional Reserve’.
I’m sure you all know of people who have gone through life doing all the things we’re told not to by health experts such as excessively drinking alcohol, smoking, eating processed foods, etc but lived a full and disease free life. Then you have the other type of person that tries to do everything they possibly can to be healthy – they eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, get to bed on time, they’re always happy and positive but yet they died very young of a disease such as Cancer.
This is because their functional reserves were completely different.
That’s why it’s important to not only to reduce the amount of stress that you’re exposed to but also to improve your bodies ability to adapt to stress.
The good news is that improved adaptation to ANY given stressor improves your ability to adapt to ALL stressors. This is because overcoming a stressor helps to train the body on what to do the next time it experiences another stressor.
So for instance, by starting an effective exercise programme that’s suited to your needs and goals you will not only improve your bodies ability to cope with physical activity and it’s affects on the body but adaptation capabilities for all other stressors improves too.
With the above in mind, it’s easy to see how stress and illness are closely related.
Over the coming weeks I’ll be posting multiple articles covering some of the best ways to improve your bodies ability to adapt to the affects of stress on your body.
Each of the topics I’ll cover are part of the “Adaptive Health and Performance” system we use here at Tyton Health & Performance and each will be focused around improving your bodies function from the cellular level upwards.
You see, every tissue, organ and system in the body is made of cells. And it’s the health and function of these cells, and more specifically the mitochondria within your cells that determines both how well your body can adapt to the total summation of all stressors you’re exposed to and the resulting level of health you have.
So by improving cellular function we enable the body to handle a greater total stress load.
As you can see, managing and overcoming stress is more than just the mental/emotional stress we experience at work or in our personal lives.
Stress literally shapes our health and function both consciously and subconsciously.
With that in mind it’s important to realise that there are only 3 ways to manage or deal with stress in our lives to promote true “Adaptive Health and Performance”.
They’re as follows:
- Reduce the overall stress load you’re exposing your body to.
- Improve your bodies ability to adapt to the stressors you’re exposing it to.
- And finally, do both of the above for maximum effect in the shortest time possible.
Either way, your main goal should be improved function of the body from a cellular level upwards.
See you in a few days with the first of our series of “Adaptive Health & Performance” articles.
Dr Joseph Mercola. 2005. Positive Outlook Buffers Damaging Effects of Stress. [ONLINE] Available at: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2005/04/06/stress-part-eight.aspx.
Dr Michael Kucera M.D.. 2002. STRESS: INFLUENCE ON HEALTH STATE AND IMPORTANCE OF STRESS MANAGEMENT. [ONLINE] Available at: http://drkucera.eu/pdfs/teorie_en_1.pdf.
Chek, P. W. 2004. How to Eat, Move and be Healthy. 1st ed. San Diego, CA, USA: C.H.E.K Institute.
Lipton. PHD, B. H., 2005. The Biology of Belief. 1st ed. Santa Rosa, CA 95404: Mountain of Love/Elite Books.