The effect of chronic mental stress on your fitness and longevity is certainly as important as that of poor diet or physical stress (noise, waves, pollution, climate, repetitive strain injuries, too hard physical work, inflammation and/or pain chronicles, etc.). But what exactly is this stress? How does it affect us?
Stress: a normal reaction to survival
The stress reaction
Defined by Dr Hans Selye in the 1930s, stress is a automatic reaction of the body (unconscious) that occurs when a danger or a harmful phenomenon presents itself. Moreover, this reaction is non-specific. That is to say, it is always the same, whatever the type of disturbance: noise, extreme temperature, physical aggression, environmental toxins, lack of food, etc.
It is therefore an identical response for the body to adapt to this situation and overcome it.
For example, for the wild animal (or the ancestral man in his savannah), when a predator suddenly approaches and his life is in danger, the body goes into alarm mode, in a state of emergency . He activates his system sympathetic nerve and secret the famous stress hormones (especially adrenaline and cortisol). The heart speeds up, the vessels send more blood to the muscles (to the detriment of the organs of digestion), the breathing speeds up, the pupils dilate, the hairs stand on end…
In fact, the body prepares for two alternatives for its survival: fight or flight. When, following one of these options, he finds himself out of danger, he returns peacefully to his activities, the state of stress ceases, his vital functions return to normal.
Of course, today’s man has much less opportunity to find himself in vital danger from a predator, and our modern way of life protects us (over) from many environmental stresses such as cold, heat , the wind… or very hard physical exertion. However, other emotionally destabilizing situations are capable of producing identical reactions in your body. The latter does not differentiate between the various forms of stress. He reacts the same way to a danger of physical aggression, to a fine received or to an unpleasant remark that someone makes to you.
Also, our modern and hectic life makes us accumulate sources of stress. The rules of life in society are often frustrating. We no longer live within the tribe where tasks were shared and where the group had meaning and protected the individual. We are often alone to manage our own tribe reduced to a small family.
In addition, our brain having evolved a lot, it has the annoying tendency to make us think too much and rehash things. We find it difficult to control our emotions, often they are the ones that dominate us.
Various causes of mental stress
Although the danger of death is (fortunately) rare today, here is a non-exhaustive list of events capable of triggering mental stress and generating an identical reaction in your body:
- Loss of a loved one (death or separation)
- Bad relationships in the close entourage or at work
- Fear for oneself or others
- Feeling of failure, frustration, constraints
- Lasting physical pain (diseases)
- Having to care for a chronically ill loved one
- Overly competitive work environment
- Moving or too many moves
- Job change
- Too much work, overwork
- Lack of sleep…
In the end, the situations and emotions experienced often leave behind a constant stress to which our ancestral system no longer responds appropriately. Our body only knows how to react to occasional stress. As with pollution and modern industrial food, evolution for humans has gone too fast.
If your stress becomes permanent, nothing works
Chronic stress undermines your health. Unless managed properly, it can ruin your efforts to improve your diet or undergo anti-aging treatment. You must therefore, to improve your health and your longevity, assess your state of stress equally as your nutritional deficiencies or your digestion.
Illnesses related to prolonged stress
The effects of stress are well known today: from the common cold to cancer or the auto-immune diseases that it will promote, including skin diseases, digestion problems, etc… almost all health problems can be related to stress.
In particular, excessive and permanent cortisol production promotes the following diseases:
– obesity and diabetes,
– thyroid problems,
– loss of elasticity of tissues including the skin,
– heart attacks and strokes,
When it lasts too long, stress can end up exhausting your adrenal glands and, with them, your coping skills, your immune defenses, your hormone production, etc.
In response to stress, your adrenal glands are on the front line in manufacturing stress hormones (mainly cortisol, adrenaline, pregnenolone). When this is done continuously and for too long, your adrenals eventually become exhausted.
Thus, after a period of increased hormone production, the level of these same hormones will drop below normal. It is then that other troubles appear. The main ones are:
- Hormonal imbalances, infertility, low libido
- Chronic fatigue, the lack of will and energy that can be felt in the morning
- Thyroid problems
- Digestive disorders due to lack of cortisol (from simple bloating to ulcers or rectocolitis…)
- Weight and blood sugar issues
- Diffuse joint and musculotendinous pain
- Mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, irritability…
This set of signs, called in functional medicine “disadaptation syndrome” (Pr Hans Selye) is not really considered by modern medicine. However, it is a very real state which, in addition to being disabling in everyday life, exposes us to the installation of more serious diseases. It is identifiable and measurable and it is possible to treat it before more serious illnesses set in, as we shall see.
Effects on aging
As in the expression “to make white hair”, stress will increase the effects of aging by several mechanisms that have been observed and studied:
- lowered immune defenses
- epigenetic modifications promoting inflammation factors (cytokines, etc.)
- accentuation of dementia-like cerebral aging Johansson et al. (2010) Yaffe et al. (2010)
- decrease in blood supply to various organs including the liver
- loss of elasticity of arteries, skin and supporting tissues
- increased viscosity and coagulability of blood
- shortening of the telomeres of our DNA, a major sign of cellular aging
Are you living in survival mode?
It is important to understand that the different stresses add to each other. Our body reacts in the same way to physical, food or psychological stress. Nowadays, 2 major stresses are omnipresent and affect us almost permanently: exposure to toxins and mental stress. Since man was not made to live in such an environment, he must adapt if he wants to live a long life.
How do you know if you are in survival mode, that is to say: in chronic stress?
Here is a set of signs related to this:
- feeling overwhelmed
- more irritability and susceptibility
- no longer bear the constraints
- catches infections easily (colds, cystitis, angina, herpes, etc.)
- poor digestion, heaviness, easy diarrhea during strong emotions
- strokes around 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., even hypoglycaemia
- can’t seem to get rid of a few pounds on the stomach
- permanent fatigue accentuated early in the morning and especially if you go back to sleep after waking up in good shape around 5-6 a.m.
- poor quality sleep
- widespread pain in muscles, joints, tendons
- less muscle strength for exercise in general
- cravings for sweet or savory food outside of meals
- loss of sexual desire and form
- loss of interest and motivation or even depression
- healing slower than usual, etc.
If you recognize yourself on several points (at least 5), it is likely that your adrenal glands are tired. It is then possible to carry out analyzes such as the blood cortisol level, or the 24-hour urinary 17OH-steroids which reflect fairly well the activity of the adrenals or the blood pregnenolone sulphate level…
The Ayurvedic point of view
Ayurvedic medicine does not separate body from mind. For her, poisoning with negative thoughts is as bad as eating spoiled food. It is therefore much more interested than us in the West in the nervous and emotional balance of individuals. For her, the stress comes mainly from the fact that man seeks his happiness outside too much and attaches himself too much to the material, whereas he is inside himself. Subjects dominated by the wind element (Vata – see catabolic type) are more exposed to stress and more fragile.
Moreover, cortisol increases the catabolism which corresponds to dryness, loss of suppleness and advance towards old age, in Ayurveda.
Ayurveda teaches that the best way to manage stress is to avoid it by adopting an adequate lifestyle. Breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, massages, rest (which we no longer know how to take these days), contact with nature, are an integral part of the treatment of the effects of stress. Then, plants are used such as holy basil, ashwaganda, bacopa, rhodiola, ginseng… and essential oils (bitter orange, jasmine, lavender…). Many of these plants have been taken up in the West under the name of “adaptogens » (products allowing the body to adapt to various stresses and whose effects have been demonstrated by experimentation).
Here is an overview of this probably number 1 disease of modern times, stress and its effects. Now, in order to prevent it from affecting our health and longevity too much, we must know how to manage chronic stress ->
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