Stress Busters: The Stress Cycle
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Nobel Prize winner Dr. Hans Selye, the father of stress research, proposed three stages to this stress response. This "General Adaptation Syndrome" (GAS) consists of alarm, adaptation, and, finally, exhaustion. His model is useful in helping you see where you are in the stress cycle and what to do about it.
When you are first stressed, in the alarm phase, the brain signals two tiny almond-shaped adrenal glands, perched on top of the kidneys, to produce stress hormones. There are about forty such hormones, but the most important stress hormones are adrenaline, which is manufactured by the inner core; cortisol; and DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone). Cortisol and DHEA are produced by the outer shell, or cortex. Hence the name "adrenocorticosteroids."
When we are alarmed, the adrenaline effect kicks in immediately, then wanes, but cortisol keeps on going. Both adrenaline and cortisol give a boost to your blood sugar. In fact, the average "adrenaline rush" experienced by a commuter stuck in traffic can supply enough glucose to keep you running for a mile. The adrenals also release the hormone DHEA, which helps maintain energy and resistance to stress.
As a result of this rapid deployment of adrenaline, cortisol, and DHEA, we have more oxygen and sugar available, push more blood to the brain and muscles, and are instantly more alert. In fact, many people will create stress in their lives just to experience this stimulation. It may be stress, but it's also a high.
When the body needs to continue its defense mechanism beyond the initial "fight or flight" response, it enters the adaptation phase. Cortisol and DHEA have a reciprocal relationship, so as cortisol levels go up, DHEA levels fall. We start to feel the effects of long-term stress, with increasing anxiety, fatigue, and mood swings.
When we become stuck in the stress response, it becomes chronic, and we enter the dangerous territory of the exhaustion phase. No longer can we produce the necessary cortisol to respond to stress. Our DHEA levels drop. We become depleted of vitamins, including vitamin C, the B vitamins, and essential minerals such as magnesium. Our energy plummets, and since adrenaline is derived from the "feel-good" neurotransmitter dopamine, excess adrenaline demands lead to dopamine deficiency. Consequently, our emotions can take a dive into depression.
The Costs of Stress
The extra energy liberated by adrenal stimulation comes at a high cost. In the short term, stress does the following:
- Suppresses the immune system, increasing the risk of infections.
- Slows down the body's rate of repair.
- Slows down the metabolism.
- Robs the body of vital nutrients.
- Recurring headaches.
- Vague aches and pains.
- Muscle tension.
- Dry mouth.
- Excessive perspiration.
- Pounding heart.
- Promote rapid aging.
- Lead to weight gain.
- Increase the risk of developing osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and digestive problems.
- Anxiety, fear, restlessness.
- Irritability, anger.
- Loss of libido.
- Impaired memory and concentration.
- Excessive smoking and/or drinking.
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From NATURAL HIGHS: Supplements, Nutrition, and Mind/Body Techniques to Help You Feel Good by Hyla Cass and Patrick Holford. Copyright © Hyla Cass, M.D., and Patrick Holford. Used by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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