In all our talk about toxic chemicals and their horrible side effects, it’s easy to forget that our bodies can poison us as well. We are all walking ecosystems with a delicate balance of hormones and enzymes. Our cells are constantly metabolizing and turning over. If any of those processes goes out of whack, your body’s natural chemicals turn against you.
The problem is, it doesn’t take much to upset the natural order of things. That’s largely because our lives are so UN-natural these days. So, even if you eliminate known carcinogens and toxins, your stressful, modern lifestyle could be making you sick. Here are just a few illnesses that are heavily linked to stress — with or without exposure to toxic chemicals
An autoimmune disorder is any condition in which your immune system attacks your own cells. This causes a wide range of symptoms, from anxiety to muscle or joint pain to sleep disturbances to respiratory distress. While stress can contribute to any of those symptoms alone, research suggests that chronic stress is a key contributor to autoimmune diseases.
How your stress response works
Persistent and/or severe stress increases your chances of developing an autoimmune disease by 36 percent. It’s not entirely clear why. One reason may be that chronic stress encourages unhealthy habits such as consuming junk food or using drugs and alcohol. Genetics certainly play a role as well, as with everything.
The major effect of stress, though, is to trigger the “fight-or-flight” response. This is meant to help us escape a predator or gain a boost of energy. When we get stressed, two things happen:
- Triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, the adrenal gland releases adrenaline. This increases our heart rate, boosts our lung capacity, diminishes our sense of pain, and thickens our blood. All these effects are meant to help us run away from a saber-toothed cat (or fight it!)
- If the threat doesn’t immediately vanish (as is usually the case for daily stress), your body keeps up those defense mechanisms by stimulating corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). This releases cortisol to draw upon your glucose reserves, ideally so that you could keep up your energy to run from the predator. However, a flood of cortisol is meant to last a few minutes — not days or weeks. Definitely not months or years!
Long-term stress’s effects on inflammation
Persistent cortisol exposure also increases inflammation. While a short-term burst of cortisol actually reduces inflammation, it seems to gain an affinity for the glucocorticoid receptor. This prevents the body from downregulating cortisol when it’s no longer needed.
Without that red light, CRH keeps plugging away. And unfortunately, this activates your inflammatory mast cells. Normally, these only come into play when beneficial, e.g., you injure your knee and it swells as new blood cells come bursting in to heal the damage. But if not, you’ll experience chronic inflammation for no good reason. This is the basis of rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and lupus — all autoimmune disorders.
How cortisol damages your immune response
Meanwhile, the constant production of adrenaline and cortisol drains our adrenal gland — which also happens to be responsible for your sleep and immunity. If you’re chronically stressed, you’re likely not sleeping well. impaired sleep worsens our stress. Also, you get sick more often. We can surmise that an overworked immune system is more likely to make mistakes.
While each person’s pathology is unique, it’s clear that stress contributes to autoimmune disorders. Patients who have been diagnosed with a stress disorder (e.g., anxiety, PTSD, OCD) are not only more likely to develop autoimmune disease but also more likely to experience multiple autoimmune disorders.
You may know that cancer is caused by excessive oxidation. Not to be confused with oxygenation, oxidation is when your cells lose electrons. This affects how they interact with critical hormones and enzymes. Oxidation is a normal part of cellular activity. However, if there are too many electrons roaming around, they’ll attempt to attach to anything they can — potentially damaging healthy cells in the process. This is called oxidative stress, and while it’s normally kept in check with antioxidant processes, exposure to carcinogens, radiation, and, yes, physiological stress can disrupt the balance.
These unchecked “free radicals,” especially Reactive Oxygen Species or ROS, prevent cells from functioning normally. They also impair the systems that would kill those defective cells. With continual oxidative stress, the body may accidentally allow the bad cells to propagate — causing tumors to form.
As mentioned above, chronic stress increases inflammation, and that can exacerbate oxidative damage. Also, stressed people are much more likely to miss sleep, eat bad food, or use substances that contain carcinogens.
In short, it’s a vicious cycle.
However, physiological stress can directly cause oxidative stress, increasing your likelihood of cancer. One reason is that the fight-or-flight response stimulates corticosteroids to boost your cortisol levels. Those, unfortunately, inhibit p53, a protein that manages DNA repair and cellular reproduction or death. P53 is crucial to suppressing tumors — but of course, it can’t do that if its levels are low. The other reason is that some stress hormones called catecholamines actually contribute to tumor development.
So, chronic stress contributes to autoimmune disorders, which raise your likelihood of cancer, and can also contribute to cancer itself. And even if you’re not diagnosed with either of these, you may face sleepless nights, chronic pain or fatigue, or neurological issues — caused entirely by stress.
How Can We Fix Our Chronic Stress?
Unfortunately, our lives are arguably more stressful than they were in the past. Yes, our ancestors had to escape lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). Warring tribes fought each other, and uprisings caused moments of extreme fear. The threat of extreme weather could not be as easily escaped.
But all those situations are exactly what our fight-or-flight response evolved to address. Once the threat vanished, our bodies returned to normal. That boost of adrenaline and cortisol actually helped us heal and recover. Plus, we learned what to avoid next time.
Today, we’re surrounded by micro-stresses that can’t easily be resolved. Our hustle culture demands our constant attention. We feel continual pressure to work, talk to people, and earn money. We’re surrounded by artificial lights simulating daylight and devices that are beeping and chiming nonstop. Rather than living in a supportive, small community, many of us fend for ourselves. We are solely responsible for our food, shelter, fulfillment, safety, and social needs. If any one of these fails, there’s not usually much of a backup.
No wonder rates of autoimmune disease and cancer are on the rise!
What can we do?
Chronic stress teaches our bodies to perceive almost everything as a threat. Then, we become so accustomed to stress that we essentially get addicted to it. With the cortisol regulation mechanism malfunctioning, we forget what it’s like to not be stressed. As with any addiction, you must gradually ease yourself off stress. Here are a few healthy green living habits that can help.
Practice yoga, meditation, or breathwork. Any activity that encourages you to celebrate stillness, calm the senses, and focus on the body can help turn off your “monkey mind,” as the yogis call it. Deep breathing is a time-honored relaxation exercise; breathwork is a more complex way of triggering calm brain states. Yin yoga focuses on breathing and restful poses as well.
Get in some cardio. If you feel like you can’t slow down, try redirecting your energy. Low- to moderate-intensity cardio is an amazing way to relieve stress. Not only do you learn to regulate your adrenaline levels, but you also get some mood-boosting endorphins. Take it easy to avoid the negative effects of workout stress. A brisk walk, a bike ride, or a private dance party are all great options!
Get good sleep. We know. Sleep? What’s that? It can be difficult to sleep well when you feel stressed and overwhelmed. If you struggle with sleep, practice sleep hygiene: avoid stimulating activities and bright screens before bed. Don’t eat a heavy meal or use drugs or alcohol late in the evening. Sleep in a dark room; many people appreciate a cooler temperature and/or some white noise. (A good ol’ oscillating fan provides both!) And get checked for sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, GERD, and other conditions that can impair your sleep.
Sweat it out in a sauna. Sweating feels good, perhaps because we’re washing impurities out of our pores or getting some good exercise. If you feel like you need some sweaty catharsis, try a sauna. This time-honored method surrounds you with heat, lowering your blood pressure and inducing relaxation. There are both wet options, such as the steam baths of the ancient world, and dry/infrared options meant to raise your body temperature. (Note: Always abide by the posted time limits, and never enter a sauna if you are dehydrated or have consumed alcohol.)
Try light therapy! This method was developed to treat seasonal affective disorder, sleep disorders, and other issues. But it’s also helpful for anyone who is struggling to find relief from their stress. Light therapy immerses you in low-UV light that simulates natural sunlight. It’s like soaking up a sunny afternoon. People have reported a huge improvement in their mood and sleep after using light therapy.
Chronic stress doesn’t have to be an unavoidable part of our modern lives. With a little self-care, you can break free from the vicious cycle of flooding cortisol. This will have huge benefits on your mood and wellness.
So, while you’re cutting out carcinogens and toxins, don’t forget the ones that can form within your body due to constant stress. It’s okay to slow down and take some time to relax. Your health requires it.
This article is inspired by an interview with Ivana Spencer, the creator of Desiring Greens.