As a self-professed Type A overachiever, I always chuckled when my physician, friend, or family member encouraged me to slow down and reduce my stress. For the greater part of my life so far, stress has driven me to accomplish in both my personal and professional life and it has been a driving force in motivating me. So why, I would ask them, would I want to reduce it?
The answer became painfully clear to me this weekend as I sat through lecture after lecture of professors talking about the effects of stress on the immune system, the GI system, the endocrine system, and just about every other system that you can imagine. Is stress so good after all? Apparently not. And apparently I have been slowly killing myself for the past 40 plus years and I didn’t even know it. So why is stress so bad for us?
To begin, let’s look at the world around us. On a daily basis, we are literally bombarded with information and stimulated by everything from our smart phones to our laptops and from the seemingly endless array of electronic devices surrounding us which promise to keep us up to date on the latest tweet, comment, and update from around the world on a moment’s notice. The result? We are continuously aroused by the next message and distracted by a constant flow of information. Add to this what is going on around the world both politically and economically as well as concerned events in our own neighborhoods and you have an environment that is stressful.
The pure and simple fact is that this constant stimulation is all around us. Add to that the fact that the average American is not getting enough sleep and the results are disastrous. We are taking pills to sleep and drinks to keep us awake. And in the hours between we are running at a frenetic pace to answer our emails, our texts, our phone calls, and everything other little activity which seems to continuously rob us of our time, our attention, and our focus. And all of this stress is slowly killing us.
The overall effects of stress on our physical, emotional, and spiritual health are far too numerous to detail here. But an overview looks something like this. First, stress has been clearly shown to raise levels of the stress hormone Cortisol. When it does, elevated Cortisol has far reaching effects within our body. It has been shown to drive up parts of the immune system responsible for allergies and hypersensitivity while at the same time driving down our immune system’s ability to ward off infection. Ever wonder why your acne is flaring up and you keep getting colds? You may want to think about your stress levels.
Next, stress can wreak havoc on our gut. This is incredibly important given the fact that your gut is not only the primary means for obtaining proper nutrition but also a prime modulator of immune function. When your gut is faced with high levels of stress, it becomes ineffective at absorbing nutrients and you develop what is commonly referred to as Leaky Gut. When this happens, not only do you not properly absorb what you are eating but this condition also allows compounds within your gut lumen to travel across barrier cells of the gut where they are not supposed to go. And when this happens, these gut cells can react to specific foods and actually mount an immune reaction. You suddenly find that you are allergic to the very foods you enjoy and have been eating your entire life.
Next, a similar thing happens in your brain. High levels of inflammation developing as a result of stress spread to your brain and cause this to become irritated and function less efficiently. What should be a well oiled machine driven by precise levels of neuromodulators functioning on tightly regulated receptors becomes just the opposite.
At this point, you are still eating but not properly absorbing what you eat. And what you eat is not having the same effect throughout your body due to the maelstrom induced by these high levels of stress. You no longer have the same amount of energy and you wonder why you simply don’t feel well. And this confusion leads to even more stress because you now start worrying about your health and how it has changed.
Sound familiar? It should. The average American is under more stress now than ever before and the prospects don’t look good for it getting any better. And as a self-professed Type A overly driven male, it took me over 40 years to realize just that. The answer is that the conditions may not be getting better and so the approach to dealing with this stress must simply become more effective and we as individuals much each take personal responsibility for addressing the stress before it gets the best of us.
And that is the painful (but positive) lesson I learned this weekend. When the case examples of this stressed out businessman kept getting presented, I kept thinking that they were talking about me. And it was then that I realized that I have a choice, as do you, as to which path I can go down. The effects of stress on our overall health are clear and simple. Whether we choose to heed these warnings or accept the risks of inaction is a decision that each and every one of us needs to make. As a wise philosopher once said, “Every journey begins with a single step”. I choose to take the step towards stress reduction and to take the road less travelled. And I encourage you to do the same.