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The irrefutable link between chronic stress and ill-health (Part 1 of 2)

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

Part 1 of 2



We are living through an epidemic of chronic stress which is sadly having far-reaching consequences on both our physical and mental health. It is driving a lot of the chronic illnesses I see every day in clinic, and is being made worse by factors such as our modern lifestyle, western dietary patterns, our nutrient-depleted soil and our toxic environments.


Chronic disease is on the increase

We may be living longer, but many of us are saddled with health problems which have a significant stress component and a real impact on quality of life. That is certainly the case with the conditions impacting my patients, such as mental illnesses, poor mood, burnout, fatigue, cognitive impairment, irritable bowel (and other digestive complaints), hormonal issues, low immunity, weight that won’t shift, diabetes, heart disease, migraines, headaches, fibromyalgia and other pain syndromes.


Does any of this resonate with you?



Here's a list of some of the common symptoms I see in clinic.


The figures sadly back this up because it is believed that between 60-90 percent of all doctors’ visits are for stress-related symptoms. And it’s why I am always mindful that to help my clients, treatment protocols need to be do-able and practical, so as not to further increase the stress load.


That’s of course not to say that stress is the only cause for ill-health- it certainly is not- most health conditions are multi-factorial. But dysregulation of our HPA axis (the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis) which manages our stress response via our brain and adrenals, and that also regulates many body systems, is certainly implicated.



The last few years with a global pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns and economic downturn certainly haven’t helped. Indeed, the World Health Organisation notes we have lost mental resilience as a result.


Acute versus chronic stress

Stress can be short-lived (‘acute’) or long lasting (‘chronic’). As humans, we are designed to handle the former because stress - in moderation - is good for us. Stress is picked up by the amygdala in the brain which sets off the autonomic nervous system.


Acute stress causes the short-term activation of the fight or flight response (the initial stage governing our stress response) so we can evade the proverbial sabre tooth tiger and then return to equilibrium thereafter. But many of us experience the damaging effects of ongoing stress- be it low grade and insidious, or completely debilitating chronic stress, destabilising our health via a dysregulated HPA axis.


Cortisol is a stress hormone produced by your adrenal glands, in orchestra with your brain and neuroendocrine system (the HPA axis).


For example, this might be due to unemployment, bereavement, caring for patients and kids, a divorce, a traumatic period such the pandemic. And it can result in physiological wear and tear with a range of serious consequences for our health.


If we are constantly stressed, this means a lot of energy will be going into managing this as opposed to energy being used for repair and maintenance and other necessary functions.


Beyond its role in the stress response, cortisol also plays a crucial role in regulating our immunity, fertility, brain, digestive health and our overall health, so ideally our cortisol levels should be within a healthy range.



DIFFERENT TYPES OF STRESSORS

  • Modern lifestyles

Our 21st century lifestyles demand we live and work at fast-paced rates, with long working hours, insufficient downtime and poor sleep. We are over-stimulated by too much tech, with a never-ending barrage of emails and texts to respond to. The perpetual scrolling gives the reward system in our brain temporary buzzes (like with excess caffeine, sugar and drug use) that become addictive. Being sedentary or over-exercising is a stress too. So, helping clients with lifestyle modification is really important. Again, it has to be practical as frazzled, overwhelmed people don’t necessarily have the time or inclination to commit to 20 minutes of meditation daily, for example.


  • Personality

Also, our personality and temperament affect how respond to stress- for example, if we are perfectionists, or easily reactive, prone to over-thinking and catastrophising and so on. So, the coping mechanisms & support systems we have in place are important. Therefore, it pays to reframe the stress you are under if you tend to over-react, and seek counselling if needed such as CBT (some recommended practitioners are here). Key supplements can also lessen this hyper-vigilance and the feeling of overwhelm.

  • Genetics

Our genetics also impact how we respond to stress as we all have weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Stress can also turn on genes that impact our health adversely. I use Lifecode Gx to look at genetics for truly personalised medicine, but that’s a story for another blog!

  • Physical stressors

There is also physical stress to be considered, such as an injury, surgery, prolonged toxic exposure and viruses. The coronavirus was the straw that broke the camel’s back for some individuals, prompting them to develop long covid, for instance.


Nutritional factors


A. Stress can cause nutrient deficiencies

Being under increased stress leads to increased nutrient requirements. But this can lead to a vicious circle in that stressed people often give up their healthy eating habits when under time pressure and become prone to emotional eating and increased cravings. Therefore, it often results in certain nutritional deficiencies, further compromising our ability to withstand stress. I take this into account, when devising a protocol.

B. Blood sugar imbalances

Chronic stress can also occur because of dietary imbalances. Balancing blood glucose is exceptionally important for reducing chronic stress and energy imbalances.

For example, our bodily systems are placed under considerable stress from handling the common place blood sugar imbalances from our overconsumption of sugary and refined foods and trying to regulate our blood sugar as a result. Cortisol is involved in this process. Many people are mistakenly eating a lot of ‘health foods’ which are too fast releasing. Manufacturers sneakily hide sugars in their products or employ other tactics to ‘trick’ consumers to buy products that aren’t doing us much good.

C. Dietary patterns

Other dietary factors that place a toll on our health might include the widespread nutrient deficiencies I see, not helped by our nutrient-poor soil and the long distances food travels. Plus, many people eat an inflammatory, processed western diet, with imbalances from the fats consumed and artificial ingredients, insufficient fibre or insufficient antioxidants.





D. Poor gut health

Healthy gut function is really important for good health for a multitude of reasons. For example, if our digestives systems aren’t healthy- especially our gut microbiome, that impacts our brain and nervous system function (via the gut-brain axis). So, attention to good gut health is always key in my targeted protocols.


Read Part 2 here.




References


The World Health organisation highlights urgent need to transform mental health and mental health care. https://www.who.int/news/item/17-06-2022-who-highlights-urgent-need-to-transform-mental-health-and-mental-health-care


K Petruccelli, J Davis , T Berman. 2019. Adverse childhood experiences and associated health outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31454589/


How stress can affect your health. Sept 2021. Cortigenix blog. Professor Kavita Vedhara. Professor of Health Psychology, University of Nottingham.


O’Connor, D.Thayer, J., and Vedhara,K. (2020). Stress and Health: A review of psychobiological processes. Annual Review of Psychobiological Processes. Annual review of Psychology, 72, 4.1-4.26.


Greff, M et al. 2019. Hair cortisol analysis: An update on methodological considerations and clinical applications. Clinical Biochemistry, 63, 1-9.


Lovallo WR. 2016. Stress and Health: Biological and Psychological Interactions. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. 3rd ed.


O’Connor,D., Thayer, J., and Vedhara,K. (2020). Stress and Health: A review of psychobiological processes. Annual Review of Psychobiological Processes. Annual review of Psychology, 72, 4.1-4.26.


Raul J-S, Cirimele V, Ludes B, Kintz P. 2004. Detection of physiological concentrations of cortisol and cortisone in human hair. Clin. Biochem. 37:1105–11


Segerstrom SC,Miller G. 2004. Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychol. Bull. 130:601–30


Greff et al (2019) - Hair cortisol analysis: An update on methodological considerations and clinical applications


O'Conner et al (2021) Stress and Health: A review of psychological processes


Stress, health and The COT test. Prof. Kavita Vedhara, University of Nottingham 


Ouanes, S., and Popp, J., (2019). High cortisol and the risk of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease: A review of the literature. Front Aging Neurosci, 11, 43. 


Ennis et al., (2017). Long-term cortisol measures predict Alzheimer disease risk. Neurology 88 371–378.


Notarianni et al. (2017). Cortisol: mediator of association between Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes mellitus? Psychoneuroendocrinology 81 129–137.  10.1016/j.psyneuen.

2017.04.008 


Franks et al (2021). Association of stress with risk of dementia and mild cognitive impairment: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Alzheimer’s and dementia, 82, 1573-1590.


Kimberley, S and Padgett, C. (2019). A systematic review of the association between psychological stress and dementia risk in humans. Journal of Alzheimer’s disease, 78, 335-352.


Ennis et al. (2017). Long-term cortisol measures predict Alzheimer disease risk. Neurology 88 371–378.


Pacoe, M et al (2017). Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of psychiatric research, 95,156-178.


Massey et al (2014) - The association of physiological cortisol and IVF treatment outcomes: A systematic review


Massey et al (2016) - Relationship between hair and salivary cortisol and pregnancy in women undergoing IVF.


Lifestyle, Cortisol and Fertility blog by IVF pioneer, Professor Simon Fishel, Founder of the CARE Fertility Group.



Please note when I create a programme for a client it always includes a personalised dietary and supplementation programme for each individual.



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