The fight or Flight Response to Stress…
The ‘fight or flight response’ to stress is our body’s primitive, automatic, inborn response which prepares the body to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ from a perceived attack, harm or threat to our survival. In the event of this stress response being triggered, chemical messengers called adrenalin, cortisol and noradrenaline are produced by the adrenal glands and brain. These messengers are released into our bloodstream and cause our body to undergo a series of dramatic changes. Blood is increased to the essential organs such as the heart, lungs, brain and muscles. Our respiratory rate increases, blood is shunted away from our digestive tract and directed into our muscles; cortisol increases the amount of glucose released into the blood to provide energy; our pupils dilate and our awareness intensifies as our perception of pain diminishes. These series of events are all part of our body’s normal response as it prepares physically and psychologically for fight or flight.
In the past stress was short-lived. Once the stressful situation had subsided, these chemical messengers returned to normal. Biologically our stress response has not changed over time. What has changed is the long-term stress we experienced on a day-to-day basis. Long work hours, financial worries, family issues – all these non-stop stresses that do not allow the stress response to switch off.
Cortisol and the Immune System…
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone synthesized from cholesterol by enzymes of the cytochrome P450 family in the middle of the adrenal cortex and is the primary hormone responsible for the stress response. In small quantities cortisol is helpful as an anti-inflammatory, speeds tissue repair and controls excess immune cell production.
One of its main functions is to restore homeostasis following exposure to stress. Continued raised cortisol levels from chronic stress can slow the production of ‘good’ prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are derived from essential fatty acids like fish oils and support immune function, dilate blood vessels, and are anti-inflammatory. Slowed production of these prostaglandins can allow for inflammation and immune suppression.
Cortisol also reduces the rate at which lymphocytes (immune cells) multiply and can accelerate their programmed cell death. When cortisol is elevated during periods of stress there is almost a complete disappearance of lymphocytes from the blood. The part of the immune system most sensitive to increased cortisol levels are the Helper T-cells. Cortisol downregulates the Interleukin-2 receptor on these cells, resulting in the inability of Interleukin-2 to upregulate the Th2 (Humeral) immune response. This results in a decrease in a Th1 (cellular) immune dominance. Again leading to a decrease in B-cell antibody production.
This is why cortisol is used to treat conditions resulting in over activity of the B-cell mediated antibody response such as inflammatory and rheumatoid diseases and allergies. During periods of increased stress the immune cells are continually exposed to molecules that are telling them to ‘stop fighting’ which render the body more susceptible to disease. On the other hand, as the adrenals become fatigued, the production of cortisol and other hormone levels will fall. Lower levels of cortisol lead to its moderating effect on immune reactions being lost. Lymphoytes circulate in excess and create more inflammation. High levels of stress even over relatively short periods result in prolonged healing times, reduction in ability to cope with vaccinations, and a heightened vulnerability to viral and bacterial infections.
Candida flourishes when the intestinal micro flora is imbalanced. Researchers have proved stress leads to more problems with yeast infections, depression, infectious disease and cancer. Patients with severe stress have more chronic conditions such as asthma, allergies, and heart problems. Elevated cortisol over the long term consistently produces glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels. Theoretically this mechanism can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Long-term chronic exposure to stress produces further symptoms including impaired cognition, decreased thyroid function, and accumulation of abdominal fat, which can have implications for cardiovascular health.
Fertility problems are another one for the list as stress can lead to erectile dysfunction or the disruption of normal ovulation and menstrual cycles.
Assessing Stress Levels…
Cortisol has complex functions. Understanding the science behind it as well as its behaviors and relationship to other biochemical components; the immune system and other health outcomes is crucial to success in treating patients. The experience of stress affects cellular immunity, therefore treating disease with immunological components means also treating and managing psychological stress.
New to Clinic are a number of Focus Vega Tests. A 15 minute Focus Vega Test followed by a 15 minute Naturopathic consultation to discuss your results.
– Anxiety Test
– Mood Test