“Stress is not a state of mind, but something measurable and dangerous. It’s not an abstract concept that maybe you should do something about someday. You need to do something about it TODAY.”
—Stress: Portrait of a Killer
Stress is making you tired. Stress is making you old. Stress is getting in the way of you reaching your athletic potential. It may even be making you fat, and it may be keeping you from optimally producing at work. Stress is a debilitating inferno for our bodies, and even though there is piles of evidence as to how it impedes our progress and happiness, it often goes ignored as the cause of all our problems.
Despite all the misery that stress causes, we seem to admire people who are highly stressed and do eleven things at once. What the super multi-taskers may not realize is that the stress is actually killing them!
Of course, everyone wants to be successful, but it ends up that if you first reduce your stress and create strategies for managing future stressors, you will be able to overcome those future obstacles that could send you spiraling toward disease. Seemingly unexplained fatigue, excess but body fat, suboptimal athletic performance, or distraction and inability to focus at work won’t even be an issue if you manage stress moment to moment.
This article will tell you five things you must understand about stress and then provide a link to Ten Tips for doing something to decrease your stress.
#1: There’s A Difference between Acute and Chronic Stress
There is a difference between acute and chronic stress and the two affect the body in profoundly different ways. Acute stress is the response we have to an immediate crisis like fighting an opponent, being chased by a wild animal, or even competing in an event like Olympic weightlifting. All physiological processes respond instantly to a threat or stress—blood pressure and heart rate are at maximal—and you can actually feel the stimulating “stress” hormones being released.
All the essential processes are switched “on” and the non-essential ones are “off.” This means that growth, tissue repair, reproduction, detoxification, and all other processes are saved for later, while the body does everything it can to allow you to overcome your opponent, escape the mountain lion, or complete your lift. Once you escape or win, the maximal physiological stress response ends and heart rate, blood pressure, and hormones go back to normal. Restorative processes kick back on and tissue repair and healing occurs.
The problem for humans is that with those wonderful minds, we continue the stress response by fixating on problems and responding inappropriately to situations we can’t do anything about. Plus, because we have too much to do and live in a threatening society, we experience feelings of insecurity and intimidation that cause our acute stress response to become chronic.
However, fear and aggravations should NOT cause us to secrete the same hormones that we would secrete when we are running for our lives from a wild animal! Stress is the body’s way of responding to a challenge. By not turning off the stress response, we wallow in a corrosive bath of hormones.
#2: The Physiologic Stress Response Permanently Damages the Body
The effect of psychological stress can be easily seen in the body. Stress IS the plaque buildup in the arteries or the fat around your middle. For example, the stress hormones such as cortisol will actually decrease plasticity and the ability to make connections in the brain. Fewer brain circuits will lead to brain atrophy. The result is poor memory and less cognitive function. Yes, stress makes you stupid!
Scientists have found that persistently high levels of stress hormones in a pregnant mother’s blood trigger changes in the nervous system development of a fetus that alter the child’s brain chemistry for their whole life. The part of the child’s brain that is responsible for memory will be smaller and there are fewer brain circuits. The early stress leaves a bad footprint on the brain that decreases the child’s ability to adapt to stress later on!
#3: Stress Makes You Fat because the Stress Response Alters Glycemic control
Studies show that psychological stress alters the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar and get glucose—your major energy source—into your cells. The result is low energy levels and an altered glycemic control that leads to fat gain. In addition when the glycemic control is altered, and blood sugar is unregulated, inflammatory markers are produced by the body. One example is the inflammatory marker interleukin-6 (IL-6), and when it is produced it targets the Central Nervous System and can even trigger fever—that’s how powerful its effect is on your homeostasis.
A recent study from Japan provides insight into the effect of stress on IL-6 production and glycemic control. Researchers found that following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011 in Japan, patients with diabetes had worse blood sugar control, greater evidence of psychological stress, and higher levels of inflammation. The research group notes that this study indicates an association between the effect of altered glycemia and stress, and that it builds on previous data showing similar results when individuals are under profound and consistent stress.
The effect of elevated IL-6, inflammatory markers, and poor blood sugar control will be body fat gain. For example, a new study from Wake Forest University found that in a population of healthy individuals, levels of IL-6 and similar inflammatory markers were associated with higher stress and with abdominal fat and body fat even after adjusting for confounding factors such as age, lean mass, and handgrip strength.
#4: Stress Causes Aging on a Cellular and Genetic Level
Common sense tells us that stress causes aging, and scientists have found evidence of the aging on both the cellular and genetic levels. Research into the science of lifespan lengths of different species has shown that stress hormones will damage telomeres, which are attached to the end of each of our chromosomes and protect both the chromosome and the cell from becoming cancerous.
When we experience chronic stress and have high levels of cortisol interacting with cells, the cortisol will accelerate the shortening of telomeres. When telomeres get too short, the cell that the telomere protects can no longer divide, so it dies.
Studies on people who experience high levels of daily psychological stress show that they have much shorter telomeres than less stressed people of the same age. This means that their cells are older—when you are born telomeres begin at a length of 8,000 base pairs (measured in terms of blood cells in the telomere) and decline to 3,000 base pairs at middle age and then to 1,500 base pairs in the elderly.
So, people who experience high stress show evidence of medically serious aging with much shorter telomeres—one estimate of the effect of stress on aging is that for every year of chronic stress, you age by six years. A study from the University of Utah found that people with longer telomere lengths live five years longer than those with shorter telomeres. This research group suggests the solution to slow aging is multifaceted: People MUST minimize the psychological stress they experience by having skills to manage it, but they also need a lifestyle (diet, exercise, supplementation, sleep) that will minimize the physical stress they experience since it also shortens telomeres.
#5: Stress and Sleep: The Vicious Spiral into Chronic Fatigue
Lack of sleep causes both physical and mental stress, elevating inflammation, and making it that much harder to get adequate sleep the next night since we know that stress will directly alter your ability to sleep. Lack of sleep (and the stress related to it) will kill you if it persists!
Really—in animal models sleep deprivation has been proven lethal. The reason is that when you don’t get enough sleep for one night your immune system will be activated, which leads to the production of those inflammatory markers like IL-6. The inflammatory markers alter the central nervous system, which raise cortisol and other stress hormones, producing more stress and damaging cells and telomeres. A vicious cycle has started that will further affect sleep and compromise the integrity of the endocrine system—and it’s all downhill from there!
Lack of sleep will stress you out in a surprisingly short period of time and the effect on your mental and physical performance will be significant. For example, a recent study looked at how fatigue affects performance in college rugby players who competed in a five-day tournament, playing three games with inadequate rest and sleep. Results showed that on-field performance and neuromuscular function deteriorated as the tournament progressed, with a significant drop off by the third game (the team lost the second and third games). In addition, inflammatory markers—in this case IL-6 wasn’t measured but creatine kinase was—increased each day of the tournament, indicating a pro-inflammatory state.
Researchers note that the rugby players will be able to recover if given sufficient time to get both physical rest and sleep. However, if a player doesn’t get adequate sleep due to anxiety, exams, or a sleep disorder, they might not recover and a nasty pro-inflammatory state would be created that could permanently alter performance and health.
Studies into the effect of psychological stress on memory and cognitive performance show that when people have high levels of cortisol and are forced to perform memory or learning tasks, they perform much worse than when their levels of cortisol are lower. The longer term effect of high cortisol on the brain is persistent if not permanent, meaning that in order to reverse it, the stress hormones must be lowered AND some sort of restorative nutrient and activity must be performed, such as mediation and omega-3 supplementation.
This article was based on the research of Robert Sapolsky who will be speaking at the Poliquin Strength and Wellness Conference in September. Learn more here