We have all had a stressful day. The kids drive you crazy, the car unexpectedly breaks, preparation for your big proposal at work, the in-laws coming to stay for a week, you misplaced your wedding ring, or that blue car just cut you off. These events and many more can cause your body to go into a sympathetic dominant state (STRESS). Rare are the days where we have to fight off the physical predator like a saber tooth tiger or a grizzly bear, but our bodies respond as if we were. We are getting a physical response to a mental or emotional stressor. This is helpful in the short term but can have devastating effects in the long run.
Our autonomic (subconscious and involuntary) nervous system is designed to keep us alive and in balance. The sympathetic side (also called “fight or flight”) can help us in times of physical need to fight off a predator or run away from danger. The opposite side of the coin is the parasympathetic system which is in charge of “rest, digest and development”. Ideally we should have a balance and go from one side to the other, not staying on either for extended periods of time. Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neuroscience at Stanford University, wrote an interesting book titled “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”. He explains that zebras experience a stressful event like when a lion chases them at the watering hole. Their bodies will have all the stress hormones and physiological changes that come from that event for a short period of time, and then they will go back to restful life. They have balance; they are in sympathetic then parasympathetic. We as humans should try to be more like zebras. We may think that we can use our willpower and be in both modes at the same time when in fact, we cannot. Bruce Lipton PHD states “You cannot be in growth and protection at the same time.”
So how is stress and the body’s response to it affecting our daily lives? Let’s look at the changes that our body goes through. You may start to see some patterns in your own life that are explained by the stress response.
The first thing to mention is the difference between adaptive physiology and pathology. Our body will go through changes to adapt to the environment we put it in. For example, when you are on a mountain at high elevation, your body will produce more red blood cells to increase your oxygen carrying capacity. That is adaptive physiology and your body changes by intelligent design. That is what is happening with the stress response; it is smart short term but can lead to problems if left in the stressful state.
By now you may be wondering how this related to chiropractic. The brain does not do anything by itself but relies on the information it receives through the nervous system. So in the case of stress you first perceive something as dangerous or stressful and your body shifts into a sympathetic state. In the past this was some physical danger, but today it can be triggered by something psychological- work, finances, family, or many others. This starts a cascade of events that are as follows.
- Adrenaline is released from the adrenal glands. This will cause your heart rate to increase so more blood is pumped to the muscles, readying them for fight or flight. Your blood vessels also constrict and your blood pressure will rise. The adrenaline will help the body liberate free fatty acids into the blood stream and shut down the receptors for LDL in the liver so it keeps them in the blood in case your body needs them in the future. So what does that mean? Your cholesterol levels are going to go up along with your blood pressure. Not the best environment for your cardiovascular system to be in. Your blood clotting factors also go up in case you get an injury and need to stop the bleeding from your fight or flight.
- Next cortisol will be released and it has a few tricks to help your body get more energy for fight or flight. In the liver cortisol causes glycogen (the storage form of sugar) to be released as glucose into the blood. It also changes your insulin receptors in the body to be more resistant to take up the sugar so it can shunt it to certain places in the body like the muscles and brain. So if extra sugar is left in the blood, and the ability to absorb it is reduced, long term what does that sound like? Type 2 diabetes. Cortisol in your system also changes the ability to take up fats. It doesn’t allow you to store fat the normal way because the fat cells will also take up the sugar, with one exception: the midsection. This area of our body is the only place you can store fat and sugar under stress. How many people have you seen with a larger belly but with skinny legs and arms? This is called central obesity and it is directly related to too much cortisol.
- Other liver changes you may experience are thyroid symptoms. Up to 80% of the conversion of the thyroid hormone from T4 (inactive) to T3 (active) happens in the liver. What does the thyroid do? It helps regulate our metabolism. So if the liver is busy with lipids and stress the thyroid hormones are not getting converted to the active form and we feel tired and sluggish.
- Ever feel emotional when you are stressed? Have a short fuse or quick to shed a tear? Cortisol will also elevate the emotional stress response. So your emotional state is heightened and things that never affected you before start to get a reaction. That may explain why you are more emotional or even cry at those silly Disney movies. The sad reality is that your brain does this at the expense of concentration, meaning your short term memory and rational thought are down regulated. If you are running from the grizzly bear you don’t need to worry about learning new abstract ideas or even remembering where you put the grocery list. If you are like me, this is explains a lot. No wonder I can’t remember what happened in the meeting last week or why I made that irrational decision to buy that silly shirt I will never wear.
- A few other effects on the body worth mentioning. Growth Hormone is reduced. This is the hormone that helps our body grow when we are kids and as adults helps our body repair each night while we sleep. This is no good because normal wear and tear is not getting repaired. What happens if we get an injury? Cortisol will also weaken our connective tissue over time. Our joints, tendons and ligaments are susceptible thus making us more prone to injury. So weaker tissue and reduced repair. Not a good combination eh?
- Ever gotten sick over the holidays? After finals or while working overtime to get a big project done? Stress will turn down your immunity. Your body sees it as survival. If you are running from the tiger, (hosting a holiday party) and someone sneezes on you, your body is not going to worry about a few bacteria or viruses when it thinks your life is on the line. It is concerned with living today and not about getting the sniffles tomorrow. Fortunately the body is wrong and we do live to see tomorrow but now have to deal with a pesky cold.
- Speaking of keeping the body functions in survival mode, your digestion is also downregulated. If you are running from that tiger, again, metaphorically speaking, you don’t have time to pull over to the port-a-potty because the tiger will catch up and eat you. This is why a majority of Americans have digestive issues. When you are always on the go, you are in a sympathetic state. Remember the opposite is parasympathetic which is known as rest and DIGEST. Acid reflux, constipation, bloating, gassy; these are all symptoms of not digesting our food because we are not allowing our body to be in a parasympathetic state.
- Getting a little depressed from all this biology? Well you would be. During times of stress the body will use serotonin to try and shut down the stress response and relax. Under chronic stress you use it all up. Why is that a problem? Serotonin is the hormone that helps us relax and also gives us that happy restful feeling. So if your serotonin hormone is depleted then you are more prone to get depressed. Another side note is that much of the serotonin is made in the gut and if you are having GI troubles you are not able to make us much as needed in the first place.
- So you are using all these stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, serotonin, and others that are classified as catecholamines. You need to make more of these hormones to keep the system alive. The raw materials for these hormones are fats and sugars. Is it any wonder why you have cravings of fats and sugars like putting your salty French fry into your milk shake? We crave these fats and sugars in our diet because our body is looking for the building blocks to make more hormones. This in combination with the cortisol tending to store the extra fat and sugar in our midsection furthers the increase of obesity in America.
In summary, under stress we get elevated levels of cholesterol and blood sugar, higher blood pressure, our immunity tanks, and our logic and memory are severely lacking. This is all done because of the environment that we are putting our body in, physiological response to psychological stress. Our body senses the stress and changes its physiology.
So by now you are really starting to wonder why I am telling you all this physiology. Other than the fact that I am kind of a science geek and I find it fascinating how the body adapts to the environments we put it in, I have a way you can reverse much of the harmful effects of stress.
In 2011 there was a study done in Japan where they were able to measure the effects of a chiropractic adjustment with relation to the stress hormones. What they found was a reduction in stress hormones after just one chiropractic adjustment. In a 2009 study, it was shown that elevated noradrenaline levels was a causative factor in disease with increased risk for things from cancer and immune system dysfunction to diabetes and blood pressure disorders. The chiropractic adjustment reduces noradrenaline levels. It helps bring the body back from a sympathetic state into a balanced state by having parasympathetic effects.
When you have altered biomechanics of the spine (subluxation), it contributes to stress and inflammation of the neurospinal organ and thus the whole body is affected. By restoring motion and reducing the stress response, it gives the body a better ability to adapt, improves function, and reduces disease susceptibility and premature aging.