Stress is a fact of life and we all learn to deal with it. But it's not innocuous. If it's chronic it can rob us both physically and mentally.
We're all familiar with psychological stress and what it can do to us. Working too hard for too long, relationship problems that won't resolve, crushing financial problems, a string of tragedies that we just can't seem to recover from, etc.
And we all know that this kind of chronic emotional stress can bring us down, causing irritability, fatigue, depression, difficulty sleeping, sickness and the rest of the stress syndrome.
But it's not just emotional stress that can cause the downward stress spiral. It can also happen if we overdo it physically and end up overtraining.
Even though this form of stress isn't caused by factors that stress out most people today, it's common among bodybuilders and other athletes who take their training seriously. It's really a matter of the old adage "if some is good then more is better" gone wrong.
The problem of course is that most of us get into the vicious cycle that if things aren't going good then we're just not training hard enough. So we step up the pace and can't understand why things don't improve.
The end result is that we burn out. We get irritable, moody, depressed, tired, have trouble sleeping, lose interest in sex, get sick easily and even worse than all of that, our workouts take a nose dive.
Lack Of Recovery
Emotional and physical stress has a lot in common. Both are due to too much of something without enough recovery time. Emotional or psychological stress is due to continual mental overload with not enough time to recover from the insults. Physical stress is too much training with not enough recovery.
Both end up causing burnout with similar symptoms and end results. And one can make the other worse. If you're overloaded psychologically it can make you more prone to overtraining and vice versa.
Chronic stress, whether physical, mental or both, can impact on the body in several ways, leading to metabolic, hormonal, immune and central nervous system dysfunction.
Although stress causes many symptoms and problems, it's possible that the common denominator is inflammation.
Is Stress An Inflammatory Condition?
To a lot of people the concept that inflammation may be behind much of our health problems may sound far fetched. But it's not. Who would have even imagined a few decades ago that ulcers were caused by bacteria? But they are. And today treatment involves the use of multiple antibiotics.
Because it's not intuitive, at least at this point in our common understanding, we need to explore some of the current concepts linking inflammation and stress and the consequences of chronic stress.
Reacting To Injury
Most of us equate inflammation with infections and injuries. Something we can see or feel. Like a boil on our skin, or a chest infection, or a swollen strained ankle. Or perhaps an ear infection in a child, with fever, aches and pains, and all the rest.
What we're actually seeing, however, in all of these cases are the results of inflammation secondary to injury of some sort, infectious or traumatic, and thus simply the body's response to the insult. The actual inflammatory process underlies it all and is much more than just what we see or feel.
In fact inflammation is a complex process that can be measured not only by the changes that take place with obvious infections, but also by measuring the markers in the body that uncover the fact that an inflammatory process is going on, even if the inflammation is not obvious or doesn't result in any symptoms.
Most of us, and certainly all of us as we get older, have some evidence of chronic inflammation. In most cases, although it's nothing we can put a finger on, there is something going on in our bodies that are making it react as if it we are going through some sort of long term, low level, infection.
We can detect this inflammation by measuring certain markers of inflammation in our bodies, including pro-inflammatory cytokines such as:
- C-reactive protein (CRP)
- Interleukin-1-beta (IL-1 beta)
- Interleukin-6 (IL-6)
- Tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha)
Low levels of inflammation, as shown by these and other inflammatory markers have been implicated in physical and mental stress, depression, aging, the metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, visceral body fat (fat around the belly), arthritis, and a variety of cardiovascular and other diseases.
As such, they're becoming increasingly important when it comes to dealing with the human condition, including the effects of chronic stress, many diseases, the accumulation of body fat and quality and length of life itself.
It's also been shown that an increase in inflammatory mediators predicts the future development of cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes and, interestingly enough, depression.
Chronic stress increases inflammation in the body and leads to fatigue and burnout. This in itself causes hormonal changes that are counter productive, including decreases in testosterone and increases in cortisol and insulin resistance. It also causes other hormonal, metabolic, immune, and central nervous system dysfunctions.
The Central Nervous System
The human central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord. These lie in the midline of the body and are protected by the skull and vertebrae respectively.
This collection of billions of neurons is arguably the most complex object known.
The central nervous system along with the peripheral nervous system comprise a primary division of controls that command all physical activities of a human.
Neurons of the central nervous system affect consciousness and mental activity while spinal extensions of central nervous system neuron pathways affect skeletal muscles and organs in the body.