Stress...A slow killer.......... by Dr. R. A. R. Perera
The pressures of daily life - jobs, relationships, money, raising children, have become such a constant part of our lives, that many of us operate with ever present pressure, anxiety or burnout.
The stress can be so unflagging that many people have accepted it as a standard part of life. Although we may try to ignore its presence, stress does not go away. It just goes to work inside the body. Prolonged stress contributes to many physical and psychological ills. It overrides natural defences against viruses that cause AIDS, chickenpox and the common cold. It also encourages the production of inflammatory hormones that can lead to heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. It can flare up arthritis and digestive disorders, creates depression and ages the brain.
Unchecked stress sends out complex signals that unleash a cascade of activity throughout the body.
When someone is confronted with stress - whether physical or psychological - the brain is the first part of the body to respond, reacting in two distinct ways.
In one of the reactions, a part of the brain called the hypothalamus sends signals through nerves to the adrenal glands, commanding them to release the stress hormones. These hormones gird the body for action. They boost heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and blood flow to the muscles and the brain, providing an extra surge of energy in times of danger. They also can keep athletes, entertainers and others on their toes, keeping them alert and productive when performance counts.
But chronic stress opens floodgates to stress hormones, regardless of whether there is a threat, allowing viruses, bacteria or tumours to flourish and making blood more prone to clotting.
The brain’s other reaction comes through the pituitary gland, which sends signals through the bloodstream instructing the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones and other steroids.
In the right amounts, stress hormones (cortisols), help the body to recharge, enhances disease resistance, fights inflammation and improves the memory.
In excess, however, these stress hormones promote the accumulation of abdominal fat, suppresses immunity, shrinks brain cells and impairs the memory.
Over time, body become less sensitive to the protective effects of these stress hormones and inflammation can happen.
Stress can give you butterflies or a stomach ache, but chronic stress can trigger flare-ups of irritable bowel syndrome, an intestinal condition that includes cramping, gas, diarrhoea and constipation.
Although stress is no longer believed to cause ulcers (they are caused by a bacterium called , H. Pylori), it can worsen the symptoms.
Stress can cause, to people who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune disease of the joints), to intensify the pain and create more physical limitations.
In eastern countries like Sri Lanka and India, people who suffer from stress do not inform their physicians or their psychologist about this situation, unlike in developed countries.
So most of these people suffer without knowing that there is a definitive treatment for their condition.
As their understanding of the biochemistry of stress increases, scientists are developing and testing ways to protect the body from its effects, using yoga and meditation, psychotherapy and medications and even experimental devices.
Among the simpler interventions that hold the most promise is tai - chi a centuries old Chinese exercise often described as ‘meditation through movement’.
In a study done in 2004 by researchers at the University Of California, on adults older than 60 years, they found that one type of tai - chi improves immunity to Shingles, a painful nerve disease caused by the re-emergnce of the chickenpox virus. Medications may also prove effective at blocking the destructive effects of stress hormones. Drugs which are used to lower the blood pressure (Beta blockers), are sometimes used in reducing the harmful effects of stress hormones.
Other medications, such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, can be used effectively to reduce the harmful effects of stress related diseases.
Stimulating some nerves (Vagus nerve) through a pace maker like device is another method of reducing the stress hormones.
Researchers at several institutions in the US (University of New York,) are experimenting with rapid transcranial magnetic stimulation, which delivers electromagnetic waves through a device placed against the roof of the mouth to treat anxiety attacks and the manifestation of chronic stress.