Long before the late writer Michael Crichton wrote the blockbuster Jurassic Park, he was a medical student in Boston. His experiences as a resident at Massachusetts General Hospital may have served as the creative inspiration behind NBC’s hit show ER, but they also were the subject of one of his earliest books, Five Patients. In it, he recounts multiple stories of patients he treated for heart attacks, cancer, and other serious problems. Among various interesting observations, he explores what his patients believe caused them to end up in the hospital. According to Crichton, seldom do patients blame the sorts of things that doctors point to, like high cholesterol, bad diet, smoking, or not enough exercise. Instead, his patients invariably blamed the stress in their lives for their ills.
Can stress really have those kinds of effects?
Everybody agrees that stress makes life less enjoyable. It isn’t hard to see how stress might even be a cause of depression, hypertension, or disrupt our sleep patterns. It’s not so obvious how stress could cause more serious medical problems, but were Crichton’s patients really on to something? Can stress cause heart attacks, chronic pain, auto-immune diseases, and even cancer?
The surprising answer is, stress absolutely can lead to these types of conditions … and worse yet, those horrible stress effects, and more, aren’t even abnormal! It may not be fair to say that stress causes ALL of the cases of these problems, but it is far from rare. Modern medical research is proving that these are condition that every one of us will ultimately experience from stress if we don’t take some very important steps to manage stress.
Before I explain what you can do to better manage stress, let’s look a little deeper into what stress does to the body and brain. After all, how can we figure out how to fix something if we don’t know what it even does?
Stress isn’t a disease or medical condition in and of itself. It is, however, a catalyst for making existing conditions, or even just predisposition, worse. So, whether you have stress from always having to put fires out at home or work, or you’re a fireman, stressed daily because your job is literally to put out fires, we have all experienced the consequences of stress.
The tell-tale signs of extreme stress include your heart beating hard and fast, your breathing becoming fast and shallow, sweating, and tightness in your stomach. All of these changes are things your body does automatically. In fact, they are controlled by a part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system, or ANS, precisely because it controls the automatic things like heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and breathing. It even changes things we don’t consciously recognize, like the dilation of our eyes, the changes in metabolism, and important changes to our immune system. It is this last one that turns out to be critical for chronic stress and its damaging effects on health.
Before we dive into how that works, it is important to know how the ANS works because it has two sides that usually work in opposite directions. Professionals in healthcare usually refer to them as the sympathetic arm and the parasympathetic arm. The autonomic features of stress response are mediated by the sympathetic arm, which is sometimes called the fight, flight, or freeze responses because they are the bodily changes needed to enable you to physically defend yourself, or run away from danger, or, if the stress is too overwhelming, it causes you to freeze in total panic.
The other arm of the ANS, the parasympathetic, is the rest, digest, relax, and restore mode. If that sounds like more fun, well it is in the sense that it’s what is dominant when you are relaxing on a hammock, meditating in your favorite chair, or socializing with friends around a campfire. In this state, your body slows down, heals, and returns to homeostasis. Your organs, including your brain, stick to their maintenance schedules and everything is copacetic. One way to think about the difference between the stressed, sympathetically activated state and the relaxed, parasympathetically active state is that the former is working overtime to deal with an emergency, so everything that is the normal way of doing things goes out the window, which can lead to things breaking down and going bad over time. The relaxed mode is the one that tries to keep everything in balance and counters anything that would disrupt the steady state.
If the sympathetic arm is driving the autonomic response to danger, it should come as no surprise that sympathetic activation drives an immune response, as well. It turns out that this immune response is pro-inflammatory, activating cells of the innate immune system to produce chemicals that trigger inflammation. Clinical studies have even shown how stressful circumstances can trigger flares of auto-immune diseases, accelerate neurodegenerative disorders, exacerbate atherosclerotic plaque formation, make asthma symptoms worse, and even lead to recurrences of cancer.
All of this sounds like stress is horrible, but as it turns out, brief periods of stress, like vigorous exercise, taking an exam, an ice bath, or even dealing with a late night dealing with a teenager child’s failed attempt at romance, can actually do us good. The operative words in that last sentence, of course, are “brief periods”. It seems that the body and brain need to practice switching back and forth between high stress responses and relaxed states quickly and effectively. My five-year-old dog, Luna exhibits this ability every day around 2PM, going from being sound asleep on the floor with her tongue flopped out on the tile, to barking like mad at the UPS driver, to back asleep on the tile, licking the ceramic tiles, all inside a single minute. That is a robust example of healthy autonomic nervous system because the shift from one state to another happens seamlessly and efficiently with no lingering effects.
For all living creatures, a balanced cycle between stress and relaxation is healthy. Things start to go off the rails, however, when the cycle breaks down because stress becomes chronic and the parasympathetic never has a time to switch back on fully. The failure to get back to a centered state of homeostasis leads to organ dysregulation, primarily caused by innate immune cells that are critically important to all those housekeeping tasks associated with maintenance and homeostasis. Instead, these cells remain inflamed for too long, and in doing so, they lose the ability to fully return to their ground state of homeostasis.
So, how do we ensure that we get back to that homeostatic state, driven by the parasympathetic arm of the ANS? Eating right, sleeping a proper amount, taking time away from stress to relax and restore ourselves, engaging with friends and family is positive ways, and exercising are all wonderful ways, in general, to get back to that centered existence.
Sounds like an ideal life, right? Since none of us have that life here in the modern world, being under too much pressure to avoid overly processed foods, being digitally connected 24/7 and too busy for relaxing social interactions, and everyone living in a chronic state of sleep deprivation, most of us live in a chronically stressed, sympathetically overdriven state all the time.
Where’s the good news in this blog? Well, here it is … there is a modern way to get your parasympathetic active that is fast, safe, and easy. It is called vagus nerve stimulation, or VNS. Twenty years ago, getting VNS used to require surgery. Five years ago, it would have required a prescription. Today, it is available in an easy to use, hand-held device, not much bigger than a smartphone, that delivers the parasympathetic activation you need in two-minute “doses”. So, for those of you with enough time in your day for two hours of meditation and yoga, be grateful for your blessed life. For the rest of us, there is Truvaga. Two minutes in the morning and two minutes in the evening, and my stress levels are manageable. Will it stop cancer or heart disease … no. Will it help prevent the stress in my life from making those things more likely or make them worse … yes. That’s what stress management is all about. Letting you handle the stress better with fewer consequences. Truvaga does that, and so, I encourage you to try it for 30 days. My bet is that you’ll enjoy the balance it provides, and I know it will help keep you healthy.