How Stress Can Make Us Sick

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

"Stress is junk food for the soul"- Dr. Will Cole

Let’s talk about stress. Everyone has stress. We all experience stress from many aspects of our lives. Stress is almost unavoidable; it is all about the way we perceive it as well as how we choose to act on it. Stress does not come only from psychological sources, but also from physical and physiological forms in our bodies. Our bodies carry so much stress and we see this manifesting through pain and discomfort in our muscles with tension, our intestinal tracts with stomach upset and irregularity, headaches, trouble with sleep, mood, and the infamous ulcer. This stress is also known as inflammation in our bodies. When we constantly release cortisol while under chronic stress this leaves our bodies in a constant state of inflammation, resulting in many of those health conditions. There is also evidence connecting this constant inflammatory state to increase risk in cancer.

There are many reasons why we need to find ways to reduce stress and choose alternatives to combat the inevitable reactions from our bodies.

A little history about stress - stress causes a cortisol release which allows the fight or flight reaction in animals including humans. This stress reaction is our way of survival and is embedded in our DNA so that we could out run animals and learn what to avoid in nature like weather changes and environmental scares. Now that we live in a more civilized society this stress response has evolved to affect our social connection to the people in our community.

Robert Sapolsky wrote an amazing book about stress and this issue we face each day as people in communities. The book is called "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers". Sapolsky explains the societal make up that creates a perpetual environment for stress in the working world and the hierarchy that humans have created in the world today. This involves hierarchy in work from boss to subordinate to familial pyramids and friendships within social groups. Zebras are the main focus to compare in the book to humans because they literally lack any social hierarchy within their herds at all. Unlike monkeys (our closet relative to the wild), who have a strict hierarchy and social step stool just like humans, zebras simply respond to stress through the natural fight or flight response. They use this exclusively in the wild when the herd has to choose to run from a lion attack or fight from smaller creatures nipping at their hooves. This lack of chronic stress creates an amazing microbiome in their guts that allows for the rest of their body to stay predominately healthy most of their lives. Meanwhile, humans and monkeys alike struggle with the stress of not only their natural fight or flight response but from the chronic state of competing in their social group to remain or climb to the top of the totem pole. Monkeys do this so much in the wild that they have literally experienced death to the entire family due to the rise and fall of the hierarchy in their troop. We are experiencing this each day trying to compare ourselves to one another and working our way up the totem pole at work.

Combine our social and familial stress to environmental stressors from polluted air and foods, we sadly see too much inflammation and cortisol release that can leave our bodies in a downward slope of disease and health conditions.

So, what can we do to relieve some of this stress? We can choose to recognize it and take it seriously to start. Don’t sell yourself short when your body is telling you to slow down and listen. Take those afternoon naps, shut off the phone for a quick ten minute break at work, take that VACATION. Choose to exercise and find your stress reduction technique through movement. For some it may be slower like yoga while some may need fast paced exercise like running or kickboxing.

Eat low inflammatory foods that are high in fiber and vitamins like grains and vegetables and lower in sugars and processed chemicals. Drink less alcohol and more water. Meditate! Read, or listen to music; anything that allows yourself to slow down through mindless activity and repetitive tasks. I personally enjoy doing the dishes to start the day. As silly as that sounds that small task to start my day allows my mind to wake up in a relaxed state while also completing a task and it takes no thought to do it. Take a walk through nature and allow yourself to connect with the divine, whatever that is for you. Choose friends and social groups that you can truly be yourself in and not feel a need to compare and compete. If family can bring unnecessary stress, skip out on family dinner this week and do something else for yourself! Check out when you need to and choose you! Sapolsky says we need more of this in our lives- choosing what really makes us happy. After all, in the end we won’t be worrying so much about how we got the promotion at work but more so that we enjoyed ourselves and the things we love to do that we don’t have to work so hard for. In this busy world today, these are all easier said than done. We do have commitments that can sometimes be hard to say no to. So, give yourself some grace and choose a few changes at a time and slowly you might find that you can evolve into a more stress-free lifestyle.

Written By Alex Taylor

Health Ambassador

Yoga 2 Barre Teacher

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