In my aromatherapy course work, there was a documentary available to watch called Stress, a Portrait of a Killer. I debated watching it because it was almost an hour long but I am glad I did. It made so many concepts sink home that I wanted to share. Stress is real. I think if any of us tried to deny we had stress they would be a fool. Stress can be healthy for us, for instance if you are a zebra running in the savanna, stress would help you survive. Now however, stress seems to have become the plaque of our time.
I'm going to break down just some of the science of it here. Stress is measurable and dangerous. Don't believe me? Ha! Look up PubMD and search for effects of stress on the body. New publications are coming out daily. This is something we need to deal with NOW and not wait. It is shrinking our brains, causing fat to develop on our bellies and evening changing our DNA and this video shows us the science of how. But if you don't want to watch it all yourself, let me give you the cliff notes so the impact hits home for you too!
The science: Stress activates our "Fight or Flight response." You may recall that from biology class. But in this response 2 main hormones are released: Epinephrine and glucocorticoid steroids. These are the basics and critical in times where you are running for your life. But it seems that humans can't simply turn off that response. Once the zebra has escaped the response turns itself off, or the zebra is dead. Either way it's over. For us, we keep thinking about taxes, bills, politics, global warming, mortality and more. Non-stop. These are not physiological triggers for stress, but psychological. By not turning off the signals in the traffic jams of our lives, we overload our bodies in hormones. Even though it's not actually life or death, ours hearts race and we hyperventilate, our muscles tense. After while then, this stress response is more damaging than the stress itself. Remember by thinking about that bill you may or may not have coming up, you are stimulating the same hormones as that zebra running for it's life.
I'm seriously not crazy but this is only recently coming to be better understood. Just about 30 years ago, doctors thought that the only thing stress caused was stomach ulcers. Seriously? Yeah. In the 80's scientist discovered that ulcers were in fact caused by a bacteria and began to celebrate that they no longer had to have that heart to heart talk with patients about what was causing their stress. Instead of having a meaningful conversation about life, you got a prescription for a pill. Well, move forward a few more years and now they discovered that the bacteria they got so excited about was actually found in everybody's gut. So why then were some people getting ulcers and not other's? Could stress really have something to do with it?
One of the many stress responses in the flight or fight response is to suppress the immune system. I mean you really don't need to fight bacteria as you are trying to escape with your life right? That's what your body thinks at least. So stress allowed the bacteria to duplicate because the immune system wasn't there to defend the body. It would grow to levels that caused massive damage to the body, but yet the body still wasn't repairing itself. If stress can cause this much havoc on the stomach, imagine the rest of the body right?
This is where my cardiology nurse gets excited...lets talk about the heart. Go figure, but stress has been shown to trigger an intense negative cardiovascular (Heart and blood vessels) response: pounding heart rate, increased blood pressure, constriction of blood flow (even to those "vital" other organs guys so take note). This increased blood pressure for instance can damage artery walls, making them targets for plaque formation-cue your coronary artery disease and heart attacks my friends. I'm totally geeking out that studies show that stress impairs blood flow, clogs our arteries and jeopardizes the health of our heart. Why does this make me so happy? Because it goes back to some of the rational I have tried to instill to my cardiologist and physicians...stress reduction can have significant long term health benefits!
But that's not it. Not in along shot I'm afraid. Stress can be even more frightening. Did you know that chronic stress and chronic exposures to things like those glucocorticoids can lead to damage to brain cells? Scientists in this video demonstrated the research showing scans where one significant area of the brain, the hippocampus, was significantly damaged in long term stress. The hippocampus is responsible for things like learning and memory. Now, look at my case for instance and remember that one of my chief complaints and that of many others suffering from chronic illnesses and chronic stress complain about memory issues.
Taking that a step further, one of the other findings important reference the brain, was that pleasure was reduced. Say it ain't so! This is because dopamine is not being released as normal in times of stress so there are less dopamine receptors to tell us to feel pleasure. Can you relate that if you are stressed, the grass isn't as green, the sun doesn't shine as bright, and food doesn't taste as good? Not even going to mention what Lucy Libido would say here. It's all because of the way our brain is functioning because it is perceiving stress.
They go on to talk about socio-economical classes and the relation of stress levels to animals and people who are facing class rankings. Studies demonstrated that those people living in lower socio-economical areas, dealing with more everyday, being "on-guard" daily and more vigilant, and in general living more stressful lives have worse outcomes. Their life expectancy drops as their risk of stress related diseases increases. It shows us another example of long term exposure to stress hormones effecting out lives.
Take that a step further and bring in the topic of weight, not just putting it on, but the distribution of it. One of the most bizarre ideas, according to one of these scientists, was the idea that stress could actually change the was the body distributed fat on the body. She questioned if this could be be part of the global obesity epidemic and potentially a step to correcting it. Fat in the belly is worse than other areas of the body because of the hormones it causes. This is another topic for another day.
But in general, does our society really value stress reduction? We sit back and praise those people who manage multiple tasks and applaud them for taking on so many things-we admire them. Perhaps we need to start valuing a more well balanced life.
One of my areas of interest right now is epigenetics, and the Dutch Hunger Winter they discuss helps demonstrate that our bodies don't just respond to our current stress. but in fact our cells have a memory for past stressors too. The damage of stress can go on for generations. The children of this period of starvation are showing higher cases of cardiovascular disease too, poorer health in general and higher weights. Their bodies made adaptive changes to help them survive even as fetuses.
Where does this genetic information take the science of chronic stress then? Well, as genetic technology is advancing, we have discovered that our genes end with something called a telomere. I won't get all hot and heavy on the details, but suffice it to say they are learning that chronic stress is causing these telomeres to be shortened and damaging our DNA.
So in the end what can we do? Is there an antidote to this? Elimination of unnecessary stress seems to be vital. Make your home and workplace the most enjoyable it can be. Perhaps than one of the big reasons my health has taken a turn was indeed my focus and attempts to use the oils to assist in stress reduction. With that, by starting a business with the oils, I became my own boss, I have control over my work, I have the ability to create a plan that works for my life, I have support from family and friends, I've increased my involvement in this work thru things like teaching and the aromatherapy course, I receive rewards back for doing something that I enjoy. I no longer focus on negativity and the impending doom we all will face-we are not immortals. I enjoy the simple fact of giving more than receiving and that not only makes the world a better place, but my soul happy. What can you do?