July 9, 2014
There is a great story in the book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky. The book presents a lot of the effects of stress on the body. It can be a little heady at times, but overall the book gives a good summation of why stress is not so good for us. I would say that at least half of my practice is directly or indirectly dealing with the health effects of stress.
In the Zebra book he tells a story about a researcher named Selye who began his work in the 1930s. At the time, he was looking for a hormone that came from the ovaries. He was injected this unidentified hormone into rats. It turned out that he was not terribly good at handling the rats. It wasn’t uncommon for him to drop them, have to chase them, and then repeat. When they biopsied the rats, they saw that they had stomach ulcers, enlarged adrenal glands and decreased immune tissue. This was the beginning of our understanding of the effects of stress.
Stress hormones can be a good thing if we are running away from the proverbial bear. The only problem is that this doesn’t happen often that a bear chases us. Yet when we have stress occur, our body goes through the exact same physiologic response as if the bear was chasing us, yet most of the time we aren’t running when this happens. So think about it: every time you get stressed, your body thinks it needs to run from a bear. Your digestion shuts down, your heart rate increases,hormone production shuts down, and blood flow to your muscles increases.
In the short term, the body can adapt to the bouts of stress. When the stress becomes chronic, our bodies don’t adapt as well. This is when patients often end up in my office. They often don’t realize that stress has led to their digestive issues, irregular menstrual cycles, problems conceiving, or frequent colds and flu’s. It is possible to help the body be built back up after chronic stress, and to help it respond better moving forward. I also counsel all of my patients to find a few things that help them deal with stress, whether it’s a long run, yoga, meditation, or acupuncture.
We all have stress, whether it’s work , teenagers, or family. My job is to help the body deal with it better, and help my patients change how they deal with stressful situations. What will you do today to stop running from that bear?