Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Chronic Stress- Surging Glucocorticoids
In some ways we are not so different from a zebra on the Serengeti. If we are threatened with bodily harm, just like the zebra being chased by a lion, our adrenal glands kick into high gear and secrete adrenalin and glucocorticoid hormones. These hormones can keep us alive in an emergency. Blood rushes to our most needed organs (heart, lungs, muscles). Digestion shuts down and we stop salivating. Our attention gets very focused. We have no need to get an erection or urinate (save that for later if we live). These fight or flight hormones can keep us alive in an emergency. But they are meant to turn off quickly when the event has passed. Where humans differ from animals is that we can suffer from chronic worry and keep those hormones surging through our system for days on end. Heart disease, depression, diabetes, obesity, immune dysfunction, learning disorders, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome,... what do these diseases of modern man have in common? They have all been linked to chronic stress. And chronic stress means we have cortisone affecting our organs and cells when it should be turned off.
Robert Sapolsky, a brilliant Stanford neurobiologist and author of "Why Zebras Don't get Ulcers" and "A Primates Memoir" has studied baboons in Africa for decades. Doing elegant controlled studies of these social animals, he has come to some amazing conclusions that may explain how humans respond to chronic stress. He found low ranking baboons with fewer opportunities in baboon culture and less control of their lives had more stress hormones and more disease. He also found that baboons with social support, even if they weren't at the top of the hierarchy, had lower levels of harmful stress hormones. The baboons that could count on other baboons to help them out in a fight, groom them and let them hold the baby, had less harmful stress hormones, even if they weren't the alpha baboon. He also identified personality traits associated with low stress, even in the low ranking baboon. Certain baboons seemed to be unable to differentiate what was a danger and what was a non-threat in the environment. The "don't sweat the small stuff" baboons thrived compared to their hyper-anxious buddies.
Like his baboon studies, many human studies have shown that a sense of loss of control in our lives is extremely stressful and children who live with constant violence and fear, suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. People who feel they can't control their lives, who worry about the mortgage, the evil boss at work, or even the state of world events, run the risk of having stress hormones that are surging and impacting their immune systems in diseases that show up much later.
It takes a great deal of focus and attention to reduce stress and quit worrying.
Just saying "quit stressing out" or "relax" might even cause more stress.
We humans probably need more sleep, more time gazing out the window or watching rainfall, less time reading the news, less time watching TV or surfing the net, more classical music, more leisurely meals with large groups of friends and family, less shopping and errands, more realistic goals for our lives and more time grooming each other. Definitely more time grooming each other.
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