Stress is an everyday fact of life for most people. We are constantly bombarded with stressors – we are overworked, get to bed too late, get up too early, are exposed to pollution, loud noises, traffic, constant worry – you name it, we are exposed to it. And it’s wearing us out.
It is becoming common knowledge that too-high a ‘dose’ of stress and/or for too-long a period of time can cause significant health problems. Most people have experienced this, or seen it in others – a person is under a high amount of stress for a long period of time and/or has a sudden, intense stress occur in their life (i.e., death of a loved one, loss of a job, etc.) and they can’t sleep, their physical and/or mental energy decreases, they get depressed and/or they hurt all the time. These occurrences happen so reproducibly that they are almost expected. However, the real question is “why do they happen?”. Luckily, research is beginning to document this process so we can take concrete steps to change the impact that stress has on our health.
Stress and Inflammation
Researchers have found that stress increases inflammation via two very distinct biochemical pathways. First, chronic stress causes the body to produce cortisol; over time, this promotes fat accumulation. As we’ve discussed in a previous post, excess body fat produces many inflammatory chemicals that create a constant state of inflammation. Thus, excess body fat acts like an organ of inflammation, creating a constant supply of inflammation-causing chemicals, which can dramatically increase a person’s risk of a whole myriad of health issues, including chronic pain, depression, Alzheimer’s, dementia, insomnia, diabetes, fatigue, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders and cancer.
In addition, research also shows that chronic stress in and of itself can directly increase the production of inflammatory chemicals, including interlukin-6 (IL-6). This can cause dysregulation of the immune system, which increases a person’s risk of infection and delayed wound healing, which further increases pro-inflammatory chemical production, which is a stressor to the body – creating a self-perpetuating cycle of stress and inflammation leading to disease and dysfunction.
Looking at Other Factors
There are a number of other conditions and behaviors that can significantly increase inflammation, including:
- Depression: Several studies have shown that major depression has been found to be associated with increased secretion of inflammatory chemicals; even people without major depression with depressive symptoms have shown increased levels of IL-6.
- Sleep issues: Being deprived of sleep alters the body’s secretion of IL-6 (both night and day) which can cause immune system dysfunction and increased inflammation.
- Health behaviors: Certain behaviors – including eating a high saturated/animal fat diet, not getting enough exercise and smoking – have been found to increase IL-6 levels.
- Fatty acid balance: A higher ratio of omega-6 fatty acids (derived from animal fat/products, corn/corn-oil, deep fried foods and most vegetable/seed oils) to omega-3 fatty acids (derived from deep sea fatty fish and fish oils) has been shown to lead to higher levels of pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body.
Minimizing The Impact
Stress isn’t going away; however, everyone can take steps every day to reduce the impact that stress has on their health, including:
- Deep breathing – taking deep breaths throughout the day is an easy and effective way to reduce the impact stress has on the body; here are some great techniques you can try.
- Reducing work stress – for many people, work and work-related stress are major causes of ill health; here are some tried-and-true techniques to reduce work-related stress.
- Get better sleep – not sleeping well is both a cause and effect of too much stress; therefore, getting good quality sleep is imperative to get the effects of stress under control.
- Glasser R, Kiecolt-Glaser JK. Stress-induced immune dysfunction: implications for health. Nature Reviews: Immunology. 2005;5(3): 243-251.
- Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Glaser R, Gravenstein S, et al. Chronic stress alters the immune response to influenza virus vaccine in older adults. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 1996;93(7): 3043-3047.
- Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Marucha PT, Malarkey WB, et al. Slowing of wound healing by psychological stress. Lancet. 1995;346(8984): 1194-1196.
- Marucha PT, Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Favagehi M. Mucosal wound healing is impaired by examination stress. Psychosomatic Medicine. 1998;60(3): 362-365.