You’ve all probably heard the idea that stress causes health problems. Your doctor may have even told you that your health concern(s) exist solely because of stress. In my opinion — that’s pretty close to nonsense. It’s a great excuse though. Why? Stress doesn’t cause poor health. OK, I’ll be flexible with you. Severe, unrelenting physical (major accident, etc.), chemical (acute exposure to a massive dose of a toxin, etc.) or emotional ((un)expected death, etc.) stressors can actually “cause” health problems. I’m also willing to say that long-term unresolved stressors can also cause health problems. But then again, it’s not necessarily the stress that’s causing the problem if it’s that long-term (referring to behavioral patterns). There could be an emotional component to why the long-term stressor has not been resolved. Either way, those instances are fortunately not the norm. With that in mind, I find most of the time it’s not the stressor that is the problem, it’s how the body handles the stressor that makes all the difference. From a physiological perspective, stress is handled by the adrenal glands. Yes of course, many systems will be involved directly and indirectly, but a main area consider is really adrenal gland function. I’ll talk about the interactions in more focused articles.
Recently, I’ve written articles about how the adrenal glands can become “stressed” or “exhausted” and possibly malfunction. This will ultimately lead to a lack of vitality, to put it simply. Additionally, it will help make all of your existing problems (known or unknown) worse. Again, I do not feel that stress is the cause of health issues (expect where noted above). So in my opinion, stress is simply adding gas to the fire, it’s not the spark that started the fire. When we are stressed, our symptoms get worse and therefore it can easily seem like it is the cause of the problem.
Now let’s talk about responding to the stressors. As mentioned above, the stressor is usually not the problem, it’s how we act or react to the stressor that will determine its effect. So you see, when you have properly functioning, adaptive adrenal glands, you will be able to handle just about any (short-term) stressor. With strong adrenal glands, you’ll also be less bothered by things, and hence less stressed overall. The same stressors may exist, it’s just that you’ll wind up reacting (or acting) to them differently.
For example, if you are on your way to work and stuck in traffic, or on the train that’s stopped between stations; you can “choose” how to react. You can: a) get irritated and frustrated, or b) relax and realize there is nothing to do (except maybe decide how to avoid that situation in the future). I say “choose” because at some point, the adrenals can get so depleted that a person may often wind up simply reacting, without choosing or thinking. It becomes a reflexive reaction, as opposed to a thought out action. There is quite a difference between acting and reacting. The former being the most constructive. So as the stressors build up, you might have less of an ability to even “choose” another response.
One possible explanation for stress to exacerbate symptoms is that stress causes inflammation and immune system dysfunction (among many other problems). However, the adrenals (should) produce cortisol – a potent anti-inflammatory hormone. Think cortisone shots if cortisol sounds foreign. Now, if your adrenals are producing insufficient amounts of cortisol, for any number of reasons, you might not be able to quell that inflammation. The result, an exacerbation or your symptoms – not necessarily the cause.
You probably know what a lot of your stressors are already. However, I want to give you a detailed list of stressors, referenced from Janet Lang, DC, you may have not considered before. There is some overlap in the list.
1- lack of relaxation
2- devitalized food
3- unfulfilling employment (dead-end jobs)
4- dead-end relationships (romantic or not)
6- junk food
7- trans fats and rancid fats
8- financial stress
9- sedentary lifestyle
10- excessive exercise
11- death of a loved one
14- illicit drug use
15- prescription drug use
17- poor eating habits
18- marital stress
19- repeated traumas
21- nutritional deficiencies
22- hormonal imbalances
23- oral contraceptives
25- counterproductive attitudes and beliefs
26- conventional hormone replacement therapy
27- non-prescription drugs
28- psychological stress
29- persistent fears
30- emotional stress
31- lack of sleep
32- being in denial about feelings
33- acute or chronic infection
34- repeated stresses
35- persistent negative stressors
36- fun or enjoyment deprivation
39- white sugar and white flour products
41- artificial sweeteners and colors
42- major life events – even if perceived consciously as “good” (e.g.: graduating high school, moving, etc.)
Remember, you can’t “fix” the adrenals if you don’t “fix” the blood sugar; and you can’t “fix” the blood sugar if you don’t “fix” the diet. With stronger adrenals you’ll be able to adapt better, and thus handle all types of stressors in a much better fashion.
Lastly, if you have a condition that continually acts up “from stress”; you should obviously do your best to avoid or adapt to the stressor – but don’t stop there! There’s probably a health problem in the making that will manifest as you age, unless you change your lifestyle appropriately. Stress management may be necessary, but not always sufficient.
[PS: But then again, it must be “stress” because: “all the tests came back normal”. Functional medicine and applied kinesiology practitioners have multiple ways of measuring stress (out- and in-office procedures) that can be very sensitive in finding a stress imbalance.]
Dr. Robert D’Aquila – NYC Chiropractor – Applied Kinesiology