Updated: Sep 11
This the first in a series of three about the impact of chronic stress on the brain and body. Of all the factors that contribute to our ability to prevent, reverse, or manage Alzheimer’s disease, stress reduction seems to be the one that’s most often ignored and is arguably the most important. First you'll learn how the stress response works, in Part 2 I’ll explain the intimate relationship between stress and Alzheimer’s disease, and in Part 3 I’ll detail the practical steps you can take to control the stress response in order to protect your brain and body from disease. Let’s get started…
There are 3 types of stress – physical, chemical, and emotional. Each type has a number of causes and here are some examples. Physical stress comes from injuries, accidents, falls, and trauma. Chemical stress can come from infections, toxins in food and air, and blood sugar issues. Emotional stress is a result of financial problems, single parenting, problems at work, caregiving, divorce, family tragedies, and traffic jams.
All of these, regardless of the cause, knock your body out of balance.
That's because stress causes a hormonal response that empowers your body to deal with threats in your inner or outer environment by automatically shutting down specific metabolic functions while arousing others. When the threat is gone, your body naturally returns to its perfect balance – which is called homeostasis. Here’s how it works:
Stress begins with perception. When you perceive a threat in your environment your brain turns on your “fight or flight” or "emergency" nervous system – the technical term is the sympathetic nervous system. This automatic response to the perception of a threat is a good thing because it’s a protective mechanism that can save your life.
When activated, stress hormones are released arousing your instinct to fight, run, or hide. This happens even if you don’t consciously realize you’re responding to a threat. While you’re in this fight, run or hide state here’s what happens:
Your heart rate increases, your digestive system shuts down, your pupils dilate, your reproductive system shuts down, and your respiration increases because all of your energy is being dedicated to responding to a threat to your life – even if your life isn’t in danger. The perception of any kind of threat turns on this fight or flight system. Its activation is automatic, and it’s designed to be a short-term process.
In nature it works like this: A deer perceives a threat from a predator, the sympathetic nervous system is immediately activated, he outruns his predator (hopefully). As soon as he safe, he will rest and at that time his “rest and digest” system – the parasympathetic nervous system – will reactivate and his metabolic functions will return to normal. It works the same way in humans.
As an example, imagine that you’re driving, and a car pulls out right in front of you. Immediately, your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) activates to help you respond to the danger. Hopefully, you don’t have an accident. As soon as the threat is gone and you’re out of danger, your body returns to rest and digest mode, and homeostasis is restored. It takes a few minutes and even though the danger has passed, you may continue to react because of how powerful these hormones make you feel. This may cause you to yell at someone who can’t hear you, blow your horn for an extended period of time, think about how everyone (except you) is a terrible driver : ). When you do eventually relax, the parasympathetic nervous system activates and your body returns to homeostasis.
But what if the stress you’re experiencing isn’t short-term? What if it’s related to your job, your relationships, your finances, or even politics? What if you actually feel a bit of a high, or highly empowered by this response and become addicted to it? What if feels so good that you aren’t interested in turning it off? Or what if you’re so used to the stress that you don’t even realize you’re experiencing it? What if you think you can handle being chronically stressed?
When you turn on the stress response and you can’t turn it off, you’re headed for disease. No one can live in “emergency mode” for an extended period of time without consequences.
You see, if you keep deploying energy for threats in your outer or inner world, there’s no time for repair. High levels of cortisol (one of the stress hormones) circulating over an extended period of time will:
Suppress the immune system
Impact memory and attention
Cause high blood pressure
Lead to digestive issues, high blood sugar, heart disease
All of the systems responsible for the homeostasis of your brain and body are negatively affected by chronically elevated levels of stress hormones, especially cortisol.
Think of it this way:
The sympathetic nervous system (the emergency system) is like the gas pedal in your car.
The parasympathetic nervous system (the rest, relax, regenerate system) is like the brake.
If you’re living in a constant state of stress, it's like pressing the gas pedal and the brake at the same time. As you become addicted to the rush of those stress chemicals, you’ll use the problems and conditions in your life to keep getting those chemicals for their energy and power. You may even become addicted to stress because of the empowerment you feel from the stress hormones.
Interestingly, you can turn on the stress response just by thinking about the problems you've had in the past, those you're having now or those you expect to experience in the future. Since you can turn on the stress response just by thought alone, that means your thoughts can literally make you sick.
Many diseases are created by suppression or over-activation of the immune system, they’re called immune-mediated diseases. These include everything from cancer, MS, and lupus to food sensitivities. Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s also have a connection to the immune system.
For many people, if you follow the trail of disease all the way upstream --- from symptoms, which are the last thing to appear in the disease process, up to the initiating root cause --- you find chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system to be the initiating factor and it can be from physical, chemical or emotional stress. Since the ensuing metabolic mayhem of chronic stress takes a long time to manifest as physical symptoms – and because as symptoms begin to appear we try to control them with medications (high blood pressure, digestive, and anxiety meds are common), alcohol (2-3 glasses of wine at night), or “comfort” foods – rather than addressing the actual cause, we wrongly assume many chronic diseases are a result of aging and out of our control.
So, what are the implications of all of this for someone who wants to prevent or reverse disease?
You cannot live your life with one foot on the gas pedal and another on the brake – in essence flooding your body with the hormones of stress - and expect to ever be truly healthy. If left unchecked, bothersome health issues will continue their metabolic mayhem and may become life-threatening. If you’re dealing with any of the following common conditions, the initiating factor is likely chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system – aka stress:
High blood pressure
Inability to concentrate
As always, I have good news. Your hormonal response to stress is within your control, which means you can prevent, or even reverse health issues caused by the chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Our bodies are designed to seek homeostasis. If that balance is lost and the body is unable to self-repair, we can assist its recovery and heal if we understand what it needs and provide for those needs before recovery becomes too difficult to attain.
Part 2 of this series will be specific to the connection between chronic stress and Alzheimer’s disease. In the interim, start gaining control of your stress response by becoming aware of it. As an example, if you find yourself feeling frustrated, impatient, or threatened in traffic - congratulations! You’ve just noticed your stress response. Now you can make a decision – go with the stress cascade or interrupt it by taking several deep breaths while focusing your attention on gratitude.
To learn how to take a preventative or restorative approach to Alzheimer's disease, START HERE.