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Get a Handle on Stress


O Excellent, I love long life better than figs

O Excellent, I love long life better than figs.
-William Shakespeare

Stress is like the card that finally tips the balance on the house of cards, bringing everything crashing down. An immune system that is in top operating order will only be minimally affected by small stressors. Yet that same system can be toppled by a continual stream of small stressors or a very stressful event such as the death of a loved one. Other stressors that affect us daily are poor nutrition, noise, crowded cities, our polluted environment, lack of exposure to the sun, driving, crime, racism, pathogens, a lack of joy in our lives, abuse, school, work, negative emotions, over-exercising, chronic allergies, lack of sleep, trauma, angry emotions, intense heat or cold, depression, loneliness and much more. When these stressors accumulate, they wreak havoc with our immune system and disrupt delicate hormone balance.

The body has developed mechanisms to protect it from the damaging effects of stress. The "fight-or-flight" response is one way the body deals with stressful situations. The brain sounds an alarm, telling the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline and cortisol, which mobilize the body to fight or run. This response is supposed to be a short-lived reaction, yet today most of us are continually in and out of this state due to stress. As a result, the immune system becomes imbalanced, sending out too many inflammatory immune factors, and our adrenal glands become exhausted, weakening several body systems, especially the cardiovascular and endocrine systems.

Stress and Body Chemistry
When we are exposed to stressors our adrenal glands secrete the stress hormone cortisol. This causes a corresponding drop in the anti-aging and immune-enhancing hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). A tremendous body of research has shown that when cortisol goes up, DHEA drops. And when DHEA is normal cortisol also normalizes. Low DHEA levels are seen in those who are immune-compromised, have arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), diabetes and lupus. If you have one of these diseases and your doctor has not tested your DHEAS and cortisol levels, he or she has missed two very important factors in your health outcome. Cortisol helps the body maintain homeostasis (equilibrium) in the face of stressors. It counteracts inflammatory and allergic reactions and controls the metabolism of protein and carbohydrates.

Cortisol is a misunderstood hormone. Balance is the key. In naturally low doses it stimulates the immune system. In high doses (as prescribed in synthetic drug form) it can be immune suppressing. Remember that cortisol plays a role in counteracting inflammatory responses in the immune system. When cortisol is not available because the adrenal glands have become exhausted from too much stress, inflammation is allowed to continue unchecked. Conversely, too much cortisol and you have immune suppression.

The immune system also responds to stressors by causing certain immune cells to secrete the pro-inflammatory factors interleukin-1 (IL-1) and interleukin-6 (IL-6). Both of these factors are involved in inflammation and IL-6 in particular is thought to worsen the symptoms of autoimmune diseases and fibromyalgia. Interleukin-6 has been found to act as a growth factor in several tumours and some viruses also use IL-6 to replicate. Interleukin-6 also causes calcium to be released from bone, promoting osteoporosis. We must control the release of IL-1 and IL-6 if we want to enhance immunity and reduce degenerative diseases. Balancing cortisol levels through a healthy diet, nutritional supplements and stress reduction are key to disease prevention.

Mother Nature's Cortisol Balancer
Endurance athletes are often studied for stress effects, as the effects of excessive exercise mimic other stressful events. Excessive physical stress causes tissue damage and promotes the release of cortisol and pro-inflammatory factors, especially interleukin-6. Low DHEA and suppressed immunity are also seen in athletes who exercise to excess.

Professor Bouic and his research team in Cape Town, South Africa, have shown that a plant nutrient called sterols and sterolins effectively modulates cortisol, controls interleukin-6 and naturally increases DHEA. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, a group of 20 athletes were evaluated before and after a marathon run. Post-marathon results showed that the group treated with sterols and sterolins displayed a significant reduction in interleukin-6 compared to the placebo group. A profound effect was observed in the balance between cortisol and DHEA levels in the group treated with sterols and sterolins. Cortisol increased as expected in the non-treatment group, causing immune suppression, and it dropped in the group taking the sterols and sterolins. The cortisol decrease was accompanied by a statistically significant increase in DHEA.

Antioxidant nutrients, including vitamins A, C, E, B6, B3 and selenium, zinc, magnesium, coenzyme Q10, reduced L-glutathione, alpha lipoic acid, essential fatty acids and an excellent diet of organic fruits and vegetables should also be adopted to supply the required nutrients to provide a powerful defence against the negative effects of stress. The mind and body are one unit, interrelated and highly complex. It may take a while for scientists to truly understand the intricacies of how stress affects immunity and the aging process. Today we know that having a positive attitude, a loving family, friends and effective stress-coping strategies enhance the immune system and give us a few extra years. Don't wait another day to implement positive changes in your life!

Science Says Sleep In
According to study published in New Scientist, British researchers have discovered that people who wake between 5:22 a.m. and 7:21 a.m. have higher levels of the body's main stress hormone, cortisol, than those that wake later, regardless of when they went to bed. The early risers' levels remained high all day. If you are trying to keep your cortisol normal don't rise too early. Remember, high cortisol levels are associated with weaker immune systems.



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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD