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Stress explains the bulk of the degenerative health conditions we experience.  Nutrition is the fundamental defense against stress. That said, stress is the greatest threat to nutrition. Understanding the interplay of stress and nutrition is essential to resolving many health issues.

When people say they’re stressed, what does that mean? Usually it means they’re challenged to cope with events and circumstances - perhaps a job, a spouse, music that assaults the ear, bills, road rage, a sick child or an elderly parent, or a nagging worry a shooter or bomber is in the same mall as we. These are not things people choose to deal with but circumstances which impose themselves on us and demand we deal with them. They take us out of our rhythms and routines or threaten our security.  We may not think of it in these terms, but when we feel stressed, we feel we’ve inadequate resources (time, money, skill) to meet the demands upon us and still maintain order over the rest of our lives.

Stress is emotionally taxing, but stress is a physiological phenomenon and nutrition is the number one safeguard against stress. No, nutrition will not solve money or elderly parent problems, but what nutrition may do is enable us to meet the challenges in our life without depleting our energy and compromising our health. Nutrition can modify our emotional response to the demands placed upon us. 

Let’s look at what stress is from a scientific and physiological viewpoint. Hans Selye was a Canadian endocrinologist, researcher and writer who coined the term stress, and he defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”  Stress, then, is not the event in the environment – that thing in the environment is the stressor, the stress inducer. Stress is an observable physical change to the physical body that is incited by stressors

To understand Selye’s definition it may first help to see all cells and all living things reveal a desire to stay alive, or live. This desire is revealed in their behaviors, which are self-preserving. Your body is a sophisticated and highly intelligent machine of which all the parts are essential to the well-being of the body, and all activity within our body is devoted to maintaining this machine.  Your body accomplishes this through the nutrition process; digesting and absorbing food, absorbing water and air then converting these materials to building blocks and energy to repair, maintain and operate the various subsystems from cells to organs to brain and, finally, eliminating what is not useful in order to keep the environment clean.  Like you, your body does not like disruptions to its routine.

Now, back to Selye’s definition of stress as the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change. All of the stressors identified in the first paragraph are demands that we change our behavior from our normal, (hopefully) relaxed routine. Contending with any of these demands takes energy, and that energy must come from our nutrition and it must be energy which would otherwise sustain the physiological processes and fuel our desired activities. 

So, what is a non-specific response?  Selye performed experiments on animals in which he subjected them to various stressors. He observed the demands for change induced the physiological system to change its normal routine of repairing, maintaining and energizing its systems and divert its energy to other uses. He observed if these stressors were severe or frequent enough, over time they resulted in yet additional and lasting changes to the body, but these additional changes were non-specific, or not the same every time for every animal subjected to the same stressor. Some of the changes he identified were stomach ulcers, weight gain, heart attacks, strokes and arthritis. Now that we know what stress is, we can add headaches, anxiety and indigestion, conditions people experience which it is difficult to verify in animals. 

The outcome of the stress process is non-specific, but Selye observed the PROCESS leading to the non-specific outcomes is very specific, or the same in every case, and it begins with what we call the stress response, fight or flight syndrome, something all us have experienced at one time or another.  When we encounter an event in our environment which we perceive as a threat to our well-being it triggers the release of the hormone epinephrine, commonly referred to as adrenaline. The classic example is encountering a hungry bear when hiking in the woods.  Seeing the bear frightens us, which triggers the release of adrenaline that gives us a sudden rush of energy and enables us either to fight or run from the bear. If we’re successful, we live to tell the tale. The fight or flight mechanism, then, is a survival mechanism.

What happens after the release of the hormone epinephrine is also predictable. The hormonal release causes an instantaneous and very specific redistribution of energy within the body.  The body immediately ceases using resources to maintain and repair itself. The brain, the reproductive system and the digestive system are not needed in times of emergency and are deprived of energy, shut down.  All the conserved energy is then redistributed to the muscles in the form of glucose in order to maximize the strength to run or fight. 

Encountering a bear that threatens us should be a rare event, and once we run away from the bear, we feel safe, and calm down, the physiological system will also calm down and revert to its routine. We’ll return to eating, drinking and breathing normally to supply the body with energy. Then, our highly intelligent physiological system will take up its routine, restore energy to the brain, digestive system and sexual organs and return to the business of repairing, maintaining and energizing the bodily processes. We’ll go back to doing what we do.  But what happens if we run away from the bear and into the path of a lion, and after escaping the lion we run into a tiger – chronic stressors?

Each time we encounter a stressor which triggers the flight or fight response, the body will release adrenaline and go through its process of ceasing repair and maintenance, shutting down digestion, reproduction and the brain and diverting the energy to the muscles. When stressors are frequent the body never has opportunity to do normal routine maintenance and now systems fall into disrepair. 

There comes a point, if stressors are of sufficient frequency and duration, there is no more energy to be taken from these non-essential systems to power the muscles.  When this happens the physiological process will engage emergency response plan B. In plan B, the body will engage the process of catabolism, tearing down existing structures to use their materials to create additional energy to fuel muscles. One of the first sites of catabolism is the stomach lining, where the protein is taken from the lining and converted to energy.  Remember that the body has already shut down digestion because we're not eating while fighting the tiger, so the stomach is an idle resource. And if we don’t escape the tiger, we won’t be needing the stomach again, anyway.  Once we’re safe, our body can then worry about rebuilding the stomach lining.  The physiological process is extremely intelligent even in the risks it takes and trade-offs it makes. 

So, what triggers the threat response?  (continue reading)


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R.D. Indianapolis
Indianapolis, IN

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