Our bodies aren’t made for chronic stress
One of the reasons chronic stress is so destructive is that our bodies didn’t evolve to deal with it. We’re set up to handle short-term, acute stress fairly well. In paleolithic times, this might have been caused by getting chased by a lion or hunting for our next meal. In fact, this type of stress may even be beneficial for our bodies because it improves our ability to react to the challenges of life.
What we’re not adapted for, however, is the chronic, unrelenting stress that has become so common in modern life. This type of stress provokes feelings of hopelessness and helplessness – what psychologists call a “defeat response”. And it’s the defeat response that leads to increased fat storage, abdominal obesity, tissue breakdown, suppression of the immune system, and all of the other effects I listed above that directly cause obesity and diabetes.
Recent research shows that chronic stress can not only increase absolute cortisol levels, but more importantly it disrupts the natural cortisol rhythm. And it’s this broken cortisol rhythm that wreaks so much havoc on your body. Among other effects, it:
- raises your blood sugar
- makes it harder for glucose to get into your cells 1
- makes you hungry and crave sugar
- reduces your ability to burn fat
- suppresses your HPA-axis, which causes hormonal imbalances
- reduces your DHEA, testosterone, growth hormone and TSH levels 2
- makes your cells less sensitive to insulin
- increases your belly fat and makes your liver fatty
- increases the rate at which you store fat
- raises the level of fatty acids and triglycerides in your blood
Each one of these consequences alone could make you fat and diabetic, but when added together they’re almost a perfect recipe for diabesity.
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There is also a well-established connection between elevated stress levels and a compromised immune system. That can too easily translate into more incidences of illness, disease and infection for individuals who have too much stress in their lives.
In traditional healing circles, the received wisdom is that minor infections such as the common cold and influenza should be left to run their course because they are the body’s way of imposing an enforced break on an individual until the condition has subsided. It’s an interesting proposition and one that supports the general view that stress is responsible for more than its fair share of illness and days off work.
If we accept the premise that stress can seriously compromise the immune system, we would be wise to heed the conclusion that reduced stress levels will reduce the burden on our body’s defences. We can certainly learn to control our reactions to stress. We can develop the all-important mindfulness that teaches us to be aware of our reactions and behaviours, offering us a choice of better, healthier and less stressful responses to the daily challenges that confront us. We can also draw strength and support form the ancient traditions of herbalism that thoroughly explored and identified the advantages of using certain plants and health to support our well being. These traditions date back thousands of years and have been a familiar characteristic of natural medicine since before the earliest invention of writing. Some of these traditions have been successfully tested in modern research labs and the conclusions support the original purposes of herbal medicine. There are, of course, plants and herbs that can boost the immune system and these can be especially useful when the patient needs to avoid the unpleasant side-effects of many modern, synthetic pharmaceuticals. This does not mean that we should abandon our relationship with prescribed drugs, even though our over-use of anti-biotics has created disturbing new strains of highly-resistant bacteria, yet we need to recognise that there are valid and valuable alternatives to the doctor’s readiness to issue a prescription.
Diet and exercise will always play a major role in promoting good health and a robustly effective immune system. So will adequate rest. There are many things we can do to alter the balance of stress in our lives and learning to relax, perhaps to meditate, to incorporate the right kinds of herbs and supplements into our daily diet, can all contribute to an enhanced level of well being. Ultimately, our bodies will always find a way to communicate to us in the clearest possible terms that we’re neglecting our health and wedllbeing needs. Take the right steps today and your body will reward you with levels of health, vitality and joy that will absolutely amaze you.
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