The reason that stress is related to so many ailments is largely due to its relationship with the immune system. Chronic stress interferes with normal function of the immune system and increases susceptibility to inflammatory problems such as allergies, autoimmune problems, and cardiovascular disease.
A study at Washington University in St. Louis found that chronic stress impairs the immune system’s capacity to respond to glucocorticoid hormones, which are responsible for terminating the body’s inflammatory response following infection and injury.
To examine what happens to people’s immune systems during stressful situations, the researchers compared stress markers in the blood and saliva of 25 healthy parents with children undergoing treatment for pediatric cancer with 25 healthy parents of healthy children. All of the parents had blood drawn at the initial session and salivary cortisol samples taken at intermittent times over two days.
Not surprisingly, the parents of cancer patients reported more psychological distress than parents with healthy children. According to the study, the parents of cancer patients had diminished glucocorticoid sensitivity. Cortisol and glucocorticoids depress the immune response and have a potent anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)
When we experiences stress, our brain responds by releasing a variety of chemicals to the blood. This provides a biochemical boost that enables us to respond to the source of stress. If stress and the subsequent biochemical reaction continues unabated, the body becomes prone to a variety of problems, such as depression, anxiety, stroke, and coronary heart disease. This type of physiological reaction to stress is known as General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). GAS was first described by Haas Selye in 1936.
There are three stages to GAS. The first stage of GAS contains the alarm reaction where the body releases adrenaline and a variety of other psychological mechanisms to combat the stress and to stay in control. This is well-known as the “fight or flight response.” In this stage, muscles tense, the heart beats faster, breathing and perspiration increases, and pupils dilate. This physiological reaction occurs as a means of protection. Once the source of stress is gone, the body returns to a normal state.
When the cause for the stress is not removed, GAS moves to the second stage called resistance or adaptation. In this stage, the body responds by increasing blood sugar, raising blood pressure, and secreting hormones called corticosteroids via the adrenal cortex. If stress is not reduced and this process is uninterrupted, this phase eventually leads to disease. If the adaptation phase continues for prolonged periods of time without periods of relaxation and rest to counterbalance the stress response, sufferers become prone to fatigue, concentration lapses, irritability, and lethargy.
The third stage of GAS is called exhaustion. As the name of this stage implies, the body has run out of energy reserves. The body experiences adrenal exhaustion, also referred to as the adrenal maladaptation syndrome, or hyperadaptosis. As blood sugar levels decrease and adrenals become depleted, stress tolerance decreases leading to progressive mental and physical deterioration, exhaustion, illness, and collapse.Adrenal maladaptation syndrome may cause a variety of symptoms, depending on which organ system is the weakest. Some of the most common symptoms are:
- Poor memory
- Severe PMS
- Inability to concentrate
- Carbohydrate craving
- Allergies (hay fever, asthma)
- Alcohol intolerance
- Muscular pain and tenderness
- Joint pains and tenderness (arthritis)
- Abdominal discomfort
- Alternating diarrhea and constipation
- Poor wound healing
- Glucose intolerance
- Moon face (swelling and roundness of the face)
- Purple striae (skin condition like stretch marks)
- Loss of bone density
Increased cortisol production also interferes with serotonin activity, further adding to the depressive effect. Continually high cortisol levels lead to suppression of the immune system, making the body more susceptible to everything from a common cold to cancer.