I am going to do something a bit unorthodox for the PH column this week. I had planned to move on from the hormone-stress topic to another issue, but due to the responses from so many of you, it is clear this issue resonates with many, and therefore deserves some additional attention. There are so many important issues related to this umbrella term of stress, particularly when viewed from the “primal” perspective of our evolutionary blueprint. I’d like to share some curious, persuasive and otherwise interesting snippets that might serve to get us started in discussing the myriad issues surrounding our modern, stressful lifestyle and its consequent impact on hormone function, stress management, mental health, aging, and obesity. Consider this a starting off point for a conversation that can – and should – go in any number of provocative directions based upon Part 1 from last week. Fodder for the watering hole, if you will. Whether you’re a scientist, teacher, health care provider, or simply interested in health and wellness, I want to hear your thoughts, blue-sky ideas, and varied perspectives. If this gets some thoughtful discussion started, we can carry it on as long as we like.
A few starters to get us going in any number of ways:
1. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers
This best-seller (inaccurate title notwithstanding – ulcers are caused by bacteria, not stress) addresses the severe health implications of a life filled with daily, unmitigated stress. Robert Sapolsky posits that the reason we get “ulcers” – and heart disease, and diabetes, and obesity, and dementia, and memory loss, and depression – is because our genetic blueprint, as it were, simply isn’t developed to properly handle the enormous amount of stress present in modern life. Our bodies respond to traffic and bills as if they were serious threats – and a number of problematic side effects occur, namely, things like decreased immunity, inflammation, and impaired cognitive function. First, let’s be sure to discuss just how extensive the role of stress is (no surprise that I believe it’s perhaps the most important factor influencing human health). Prolonged and excessive stress – and specifically, we’re talking about stress to the adrenal cortex – is related (but not limited) to:
- hormonal imbalances
- sex drive
- mental function
- weight and metabolism
- pain and muscle tension
2. Addressing Stress: Some Questions
- To the extent that we agree (or disagree) about the impact of stress upon health and longevity, how, then, do we best address and manage stress? What lifestyle changes do we make? What is realistic?
- I believe the modern diet, high in refined sugars and fats – worthless, toxic calories – exacerbates the already stressful lifestyle we face. Is there a place for sugar – ever – in the modern diet? And how much benefit can we really expect from dietary prescriptions for stress?
- Spirituality and healing. Is the answer a yoga mat away? Perhaps a prescription of Prozac? What practical changes can we make in our daily lives to address anxiety and tension? And what are we seeking – relief? Transformation? Or simply the ability to cope?
- Are our expectations simply too high? Is stress more useful than we think – perhaps something akin to “survival of the fittest”? Have we simply conditioned ourselves into expecting fulfillment, happiness, wealth, and love, only to face the grim reality that life is unfair, imperfect, and always will be? There certainly was never a glorious, golden past when humans were both perfectly happy and healthy. Why do we feel happiness is a virtue? Consider the arbitrariness of “happiness”, which conditions everything from our belief in whole grains to our materialism:
3. Addiction: Seeking Relief
Time has a fascinating article out this week detailing the mechanisms behind addictions of all kinds: alcoholism, gambling, smoking, drugs, caffeine, sex, shopping. Addiction is destructive and serves no evolutionary purpose, so it would seem – so why has nature not ridded us of the capacity for addiction? Whether it’s beer or bonbons, the chemical pathways in the brain that are related to addiction are virtually identical. We become habituated to destructive practices for various reasons (environment, behavior, genetics) but we stay addicted for the chemical release in the brain. Read the article, and let’s work this into the discussion. Here’s to it!