Physiological Responses to Chronic Stress-Related Disease and Illness
It is without question that stress is a major contributing factor to illness, disease, and even death in Westernized cultures.
- company meetings
- soccer practice
- college applications
- social status
…and the list continues.
These are only a few aspects of our lives with which we wrestle on a daily basis. Without the ability to escape from these stressors, we inevitably suffer from chronic stress-related disease and illness.
Yet, the mere thought of all of these perceived stressors and a lion roaring in your face are somehow able to elicit an identical physiological response. How can that be? And, more importantly, what exactly is happening?
Sympathetic Response in the Autonomic Nervous System
Naturally, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system sympathizes with your perceived and physical stressors equally, equipping your body to respond appropriately for fight or flight.
The Hypothalamus and Stress
This message is sent out from the hypothalamus, the master gland, triggering a cascade of hormone and neurotransmitter release.
This parade of hormones and neurotransmitters consists of a procession of epinephrine and norepinephrine (representing the sympathetic sector) and glucocorticoids (hailing from the adrenal cortex), all coming together to celebrate the arrival of the stressor.
While this response is critical for survival in certain situations, a non-stop, continuous cascade-parade of these neurotransmitters and hormones will leave your body feeling like the streets of New Orleans following Mardi Gras.
Thus, in essence, the situations we react to internally and psychologically, will eventually manifest physically – creating damage to the body.
Perpetual activation of the sympathetic system prevents the body from investing energy towards basic maintenance required for maintaining health, such as growth, digestion and cell repair.
Sapolsky and Westernized Stress-Related Disease
This video explores the research Stanford’s Dr. Robert Sapolsky conducted on Baboons in Kenya, and how the social and psychological stressors found within their community serve as a good model for Westernized stress related disease. These studies allow us to further understand chronic stress, and the impact it has on the human body.
In addition to a well-balanced diet and routine exercise, a low-stress lifestyle may be necessary for true healing and healthy living.
M., S. R. (1998). Why zebras don’t get ulcers: An updated guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping. New York: W.H. Freeman.