Stress is part of our everyday life, none of us can escape it. A newborn learns quickly how stressing hunger can be and adapts to it by crying. We are no different than that baby, we also need to hear our body’s cries and nurture it like we would a small baby. The only difference is that the baby cannot help himself, but we can. In the case of stress, it might be a question of knowing ourselves first to be able to know our body. According to the observations made by reknown cardiologist Stephen Sinatra many times stress is linked to certain personality traits. He explains how most of his cardiac patients had certain personality traits like thinking everything needs to be done instantly, striving to reach unrealistic goals, strong emotions like anger, sadness, emotional pain, etc. What is important to understand about stress is that is the root cause of every degenerative disease there is, and many of us don’t do anything to change until the disease is present.
But what is stress and how does it manifest itself in the body? Bernard Jensen in his book “Developing a New Heart” defines stress as pressure caused by our reaction to disturbing situations. He explains the health of our heart is intimately related to how well we handle our emotional responses to the events we encounter in life. He says stress is dangerous because it is invisible so it can creep on us without warning. Stress can reach the point of heart attack that is not caused by the gradual progression of heart disease but by the shock of bad news. Stress can also build up slowly and become a small but constant drip till it becomes chronic. A good example are workaholics, who have three times higher the risk of a heart attack.
The nervous system
According to pharmacist Ben Fuchs we have two nervous systems:
- The “fight or flight” nervous system, also technically known as the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). It directs energy into the activities that keep us alive in emergency and life-threatening situations”. Almost any degenerative disease can follow long-term activation of the sympathetic nervous system. An example of this is cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure and blood clotting. Most of us spend a large amount of time in fight or flight mode.
- The second, called the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is involved with more long-term activities. The PNS is sometimes called the “ rest and digest” system and the more time we spend in this parasympathetic state, the longer we will be alive and healthy. This is especially true if we’re dealing with a major crisis like cancer or heart disease.
Stress related diseases include stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, colitis, atherosclerosis, asthma, arthritis, skin problems, irritable bowel syndrome, heart attack and stroke. The feelings we have toward the stressful event trigger responses in the brain, nervous system and endocrine system. Chronic stress overstimulates glands and organs in the body, especially the heart. This state invites disease and lowers immunity, so we are more vulnerable to other stresses. According to Dr. R. C Rocine, worry is even linked to heart problems, worry he said can ‘eat up the heart and depress circulation’. Despite this, stress is important, it helps us stay alive and stimulates us to higher levels of performance. The problem with stress is that it is destructive inside of us if we don’t handle it properly. A constant ‘internalized or bottled up fight or flight response is very destructive’. Some signs that stress is reaching dangerous levels can be nervousness, rapid heartbeat, sleeplessness, etc.
We could say there are different types of stress like emotional or spiritual stress, then there is physical stress, but in all cases stress is a preprogrammed and unconscious physical response that includes physical and chemical changes. What happens when we are under stress is our nervous system goes into overdrive, flooding our body with stress chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol. These chemicals produce a sharp rise in blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen consumption and blood flow to muscles, all aimed to allow us to fight or flee the situation, whichever is best. These physical changes include:
Blood shunted away from certain areas like:
- Extremities, then directed to the core of the body.
- Gastrointestinal system: in a stressful situation our body thinks it is more important to get ready to fight or run and it shuts down digestion, which is not perceived to the body as immediately life saving.
- Capillaries of the skin: By constricting the blood vessels the possibility of bleeding is reduced in the case of injury. The blood tends to clot also to keep us from bleeding to death in a dangerous situation.
The body also shuts down urine production which in turn increases blood volume, increasing blood pressure.
Blood is then moved to other parts of the body:
- Eyes for visual acuity.
- Brain for mental clarity and decision making.
- The heart to increase the volume of blood ejected with each heartbeat, therefore increasing blood pressure and heart rate.
- The liver, to mobilize glucose for energy
- The bronchials, to dilate and get more oxygen into the lungs.
It is important to notice that all these physical reactions happen in the body regardless of the cause of the stress: running from a tiger that wants to eat us, bills piling up, a demanding job, etc, etc. While it would be wise to get motivated in such a way to run from a fierce tiger that wants to eat us, it is not wise to keep our nervous system in fight or flight mode 24/7 and yet most of us live this way.
Not everyone responds to stress the same way, it all depends on how our mind and our emotions interpret the stress. Some doctors will approach this by saying, ‘it is all in your head’, and can we blame them? after all stress is our choice, there is nothing a doctor can do about our choices.
The adrenal glands and stress
According to pharmacist Ben Fuchs, hormones and enzymes are among the most important chemicals the body makes. Hormones turn on and off the stress response, they are in this sense like a switch that starts activity in the cells of the adrenal glands (our stress glands).
Since the adrenal glands are our stress glands and help us handle stress they are very important for heart health. The adrenal hormones according to James L Wilson, N.D., D.C., Ph. D., in his book “Adrenal fatigue” “influence all of the major physiological processes in the body, they closely affect the utilization of carbohydrates and fats, the conversion of fats and proteins into energy, the distribution of stored fat (especially around your waist), normal blood sugar regulation and proper cardiovascular and gastrointestinal function. The protective activity of anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant hormones secreted by the adrenals helps to minimize negative and allergic reaction to alcohol, drugs, foods and environmental allergen. Even your propensity to develop certain kinds of diseases and your ability to respond to chronic illness is influenced significantly by the adrenal glands. The more chronic the illness, the more critical the adrenal response becomes. You cannot live without your adrenal hormones and how well you live depends a great deal on how well your adrenal glands function”.
He explains healthy adrenals secrete minute yet precise and balanced amounts of steroid hormones. But because they are designed to be so very responsive to changes in your inner physical emotional and psychological environment any number of factors can interfere with this finely tuned balance. All of the different types of stress: physical, emotional, psychological, environmental, infections, environmental toxins, poor diet, an abscessed tooth, or a combination of these can occur simultaneously, accumulate or become chronic. The adrenals then have no opportunity to fully recover, adrenal fatigue is usually the result. This also means that too much physical, emotional, environmental and or psychological stress can deplete your adrenals causing a decrease in the output of adrenal hormones particularly cortisol.
The demands of everyday life are putting a great load in our adrenals, many people live with adrenal fatigue without knowing they have it. The heart is affected greatly by this. We need to understand how to help our heart by giving our adrenals the opportunity to recover.
This leads us to the next point, the adrenal glands release several stress hormones, namely cortisol, adrenaline, youth and fertility, serotonin and aldosterone among others. We will focus on the ones that affect heart health directly.
Cortisol, our energy hormone
Cortisol controls the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates to maintain blood glucose within a narrow optimal range and keep it there even under stressful situations. Although secreted by the adrenals, cortisol is regulated from the brain. Cortisol is responsible for many of the life sustaining functions attributed to the adrenal glands. Cortisol levels raise up during the day, with its highest around 8 a.m. and lowest at 4 p.m. This rising cortisol is what helps us wake up in the morning. The rise and decrease of cortisol is not uniform but has little peaks, for example a little snack will increase cortisol levels. Exercise has a similar effect as that snack in raising the cortisol levels. For people with adrenal fatigue the cortisol levels can be more irregular than usual even unpredictable.
Cortisol will raise in times of stress to protect the body against stress in many different ways:
- Cortisol keeps blood sugar in balance. It does this by converting fats into fatty acids and proteins into peptides, both of which are converted into energy in the form of blood glucose. The body uses this glucose as its preferred form of energy and needs constant glucose levels through the day. Cortisol and insulin work together, cortisol ensures there is glucose available for energy, insulin unlocks the cell membranes to let glucose into the cells. When we are under stress there is more demand on the different tissues of the body so more glucose is needed for energy. When the person has adrenal fatigue, the cortisol levels are going to be lower than in healthy people, thereby the importance of having a balanced diet high in fats and protein.
- Cortisol is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Anytime we have redness or swelling in the body or auto-immunity, whether from a mosquito bite or an allergen, cortisol is dispatched to the area. The medical approach to any auto-immune disease or inflammation is to administer a corticosteroid, which imitates the work of cortisol but they come with many side effects.
- Cortisol affects the cells that participate in immune reactions and inflammatory reactions, especially white blood cells: lymphocytes, natural killer cells, macrophages, etc. These white blood cells gather in defense of the body at places of injury or invasion and flood the area with some very powerful chemicals to attack the invaders. These chemicals are so powerful they can create redness and swelling. Cortisol keeps the white blood cells from attaching themselves to the area and releasing their chemicals and also controls the number of lymphocytes and other white blood cells so there are not too many circulating in the area. This prevents an overstimulation of the immune response, controls irritation and tissue destruction where white blood cells gather. Cortisol also prevents lymphocytes from multiplying. This is so important because when our cortisol is low, like when our immune system is suppressed because we are under stress or taking corticosteroids, the lymphocytes can multiply out of control and this means, more redness and swelling making the inflamed area need more time to return to normal. In other words, more stress means more inflammation!
- Cortisol has complex and opposing effects in the cardiovascular system. It contracts the walls of the arteries thus regulating blood pressure. People with low cortisol have low blood pressure. Cortisol also regulates sodium and potassium in the heart cells and increases the strength of contraction of the heart muscle. Cortisol also tends to raise blood pressure but this hypertensive effect is moderated by calcium and magnesium. These two minerals are needed to keep the heart muscles from cramping when they contract thus keeping the heart beating smoothly, they also relax the walls of the arteries, counteracting the increase in smooth muscle contraction produced by cortisol.
- Cortisol influences behavior, mood, excitability even electrical activity of neurons. In the case of excessive or deficient cortisol there can be behavioral changes and sleep disorders. Adrenal fatigue involves moodiness, decreased tolerance, clarity of thought and memory because of either too much or too little cortisol. The right amount is needed for proper function during stress.
- In times of stress the need for cortisol increases. If enough is not made as is the case of adrenal fatigue, the person cannot properly adapt to stress.
Under normal circumstances cortisol has the important role of helping the different organs so they can respond when called to action. When stress is present cortisol must at the same time provide more blood glucose, mobilize fats and proteins for a back up source of glucose and modify immune reactions, heartbeat, blood pressure, brain alertness and nervous systems responsiveness. Without cortisol maintaining your body under stress this is nearly impossible.