Documentary Examines How Stress Kills

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Dr. Mercola| “Stress is not a state of mind… it’s measurable and dangerous, and humans can’t seem to find their off-switch.” These words of warning come from renowned author and award-winning neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky in the documentary Stress: Portrait of a Killer.1

The film, jointly produced by National Geographic and Stanford University where Dr. Sapolsky is a professor and scholar, shows just how dangerous prolonged stress can be.

As we evolved, the stress response saved our lives by enabling us to run from predators or take down prey. But today, we are turning on the same “life-saving” reaction to cope with $4 per gallon gasoline, fear of public speaking, difficult bosses, and traffic jams—and have a hard time turning it off.

Constantly being in a stress response may have you marinating in corrosive hormones around the clock.

This film shows the impact stress has on your body, how it can shrink your brain, add fat to your belly, and even unravel your chromosomes. Understanding how stress works can help you figure out ways to combat it and reduce its negative impacts on your health.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Dr. Sapolsky has learned a great deal about the human stress response and its effects on your body by studying primates in Africa. Every year, he spends a few weeks in the Kenyan wilderness studying baboon societies that have intraspecies social and psychological tumult that mimics the stress of modern man.

He monitors their adrenal hormone levels, namely adrenalin (epinephrine) and glucocorticoids (such as cortisol). The fact that baboons live in communities with hierarchical structures led Dr. Sapolsky to one of his most profound discoveries: baboon stress is related to hierarchy, or social rank.

The higher a baboon’s rank, the less stress it experiences. The lower its rank, the higher its stress. More importantly, Dr. Sapolsky discovered that the low ranking “have-nots” of the baboon world experienced higher heart rates and blood pressure than the “haves.”

Arteries in the “have-not” monkeys filled up with plaque, restricting their blood flow and increasing their heart attack risk. This was the first time stress was scientifically linked to deteriorating health in wild primates. As it turns out, the same is true for other primates—for example, us!

Mortality Rates Follow a Social Gradient

Professor Sir Michael Marmot performed a 40-year long stress study in which he followed 18,000 men occupying various positions with the British Civil Service. His findings paralleled what Sapolsky found for the baboons: the higher your status, the lower your risk for stress-related diseases.2

Marmot found that men in the lowest employment grades were much more likely to die prematurely than men in the higher grades—there is in fact a “social gradient” for mortality. Subsequent studies involving women had similar findings. But why would this be—what does your status have to do with your stress?

It’s All About Your Locus of Control

Dr. Sapolsky explains how psychological distress may turn on your stress response in this short video clip. If the link does not work for you, you can access it on the Stanford University website (click on “Related to this Story” in right column, then the tab “More on Stress”). Sapolsky explains how you are more vulnerable to stress if the following factors are true:

  • You feel like you have no control
  • You’re not getting any predictive information (how bad the challenge is going to be, how long it will go on, etc.)
  • You feel you have no way out
  • You interpret things as getting worse
  • You have no “shoulder to cry on” (e.g., lack of social affiliation or support)

Like baboons, people at the top of the social pyramid feel a greater sense of control because they are the ones who call the shots, as well as typically having more social connections and resources at their disposal. This results in less stress, which over the long run translates to lower rates of disease.

Stress is also closely related to the experience of pleasure, related to the binding of dopamine to pleasure receptors in your brain. The brains of “primate CEOs” light up brightly in PET scans, whereas the brains of subordinate monkeys do not, indicating that life is less pleasurable for the subordinates.

Like primates, people of lower socioeconomic status appear to derive less pleasure from their lives. Perhaps this is why laughter therapy is so effective!3, 4

Overall, men and women suffer from the same stress-related illnesses, but they differ in the types of situations they experience as most stressful. The genders also experience stress differently. For example, women suffer more stress-induced anxiety and depression than men.5 One thing is known to be true for both genders: higher stress equates to a shorter life expectancy.

Are You a Stress Junkie?

The paradox here is that humans have essentially become addicted to stress. There is “good stress” (eustress) and “bad stress” (distress)—meaning, you experience certain stressful experiences as unpleasant and seek to avoid them, but others you may actually seek out because they’re fun. For example, snowboarding, skydiving, rollercoasters, and scary movies are experiences that may flip your thrill-switch—and your body responds to those stresses in the same way as if a tiger were chasing you.

Your muscles tense, your heart pounds, your respirations increase, and your body stops all of its non-essential processes.This can be pleasantly exhilarating, and for some rather addictive… you might know someone whom you could describe as an “adrenalin junkie.” A thrill is simply the relinquishing of a bit of control in a setting that feels safe. But when you’re in that heightened state of arousal 24/7, stress takes its toll on your body—whether you perceive the stress as “good” or “bad.”

Stress Takes a Toll on Your Brain and Adds Inches to Your Waistline

Science has established that stress can lead to cardiovascular disease, but did you know that it can also lead to weight gain—of the worst kind? Stress-induced weight gain typically involves an increase in belly fat, which is the most dangerous fat for your body to accumulate, and increases your cardiovascular risk. Stress alters the way fat is deposited because of the specific hormones and other chemicals your body produces when you’re stressed.

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Prolonged stress can also damage your brain cells and make you lose the capacity to remember things. The brain cells of stressed rats are dramatically smaller, especially in the area of their hippocampus, which is the seat of learning and memory. Stress disrupts your neuroendocrine and immune systems and appears to trigger a degenerative process in your brain that can result in Alzheimer’s disease. Stress can also accelerate aging by shortening your telomeres, the protective genetic structures that regulate how your cells age. In the words of Dr. Lissa Rankin, author of Mind Over Medicine:6

“Our bodies know how to fix broken proteins, kill cancer cells, retard aging, and fight infection. They even know how to heal ulcers, make skin lesions disappear and knit together broken bones! But here’s the kicker—those natural self-repair mechanisms don’t work if you’re stressed!”

According to Dr. Sapolsky, the following are the most common health conditions that are caused by or worsened by stress:

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