It has long been known that there is a link between stress and illness. Intuitively, it seems obvious. You receive bad news about a family member and all of a sudden you have a headache. Or in the middle of a major life change like moving or getting a divorce, you start to experience a skin problem you’ve never had before. “I’m too stressed,” you realize, and hopefully you find ways to minimize the stressors in your life, and your health returns to normal.

But apart from anecdotal evidence, there is now a wealth of scientific knowledge illustrating the link between disease and stress. Studies have shown that stress can be a major contributor to conditions as diverse as depression, cardiovascular disease, migraine headaches and eczema. For decades, doctors have been advising patients to avoid or reduce stress in order to improve health outcomes, but it still was not clear HOW emotional and mental stress wreaks such havoc on the body. We knew that stressed people were more likely to succomb to sickness, but scientifically, we did not know WHY.

One possibility was that since stress causes the body to manufacture more cortisol (the “stress hormone”), that cortisol was the culprit of poorer health outcomes among stressed people. However, that theory was not borne out by the research. Studies found that cortisol levels failed to predict health outcomes with any consistency.

But recent studies have begun to take a new approach to the question. Perhaps it wasn’t corisol levels, but the way the body reacted to the hormone that contributed to illness.

“One of cortisol’s key roles in the body is the suppression of inflammation. This is why its synthetic equivalent, hydrocortisone, is used in treating a range of inflammatory conditions, from eczema to ulcerative colitis… [If] the glucocorticoid receptors on the cells of the immune system fail to respond as they should to the presence of cortisol… the body’s arrangements for keeping inflammation in check could break down.”

This failure of the immune system to respond adequately to the presence of cortisol is known as “glucocorticoid resistance”. It can be compared to other types of resistance that your body builds up over time- such as a resistance to an antibiotic. If your adrenal gland, in response to stress, floods your body with cortisol over a prolonged period of time, eventually your immune system will fail to process this inundation. The cortisol that is supposed to prevent inflammation in the body is now being rejected by the body.

So prolonged stress leads to an immune resistance to cortisol, which results in inflammation. Inflammation, as you may know, has been positively correlated with a wide range of disease: asthma, diabetes, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and MS, just to name a few.

But where’s the good news in all of this?

Well, now that we know that the link between stress and illness is inflammation, we have more tools at our disposal to address our health concerns. Of course, there are many ways to reduce stress, but sometimes, as in a period of unemployment or grieving, it just isn’t possible to eliminate the source of stress without completely dropping out of life. So we can turn to other measures to ensure that our mind, body, and emotions are all taken care of and well supported through the situation.

Here is a list of ways to reduce stress and inflammation for more optimal health:

-Eat foods that fight inflammation
-Avoid foods that contribute to inflammation
-Get a bit of exercise every day if you can, but don’t overwork yourself in times of high stress. A walk or a swim should do it.
-Don’t ignore your need to be touched! Massage therapy is a HUGE help for stressful periods in your life. But in between sessions, make sure you are giving/receiving hugs, pats on the back, or even handshakes as often as possible.
-Include anti-inflammatory spices such as turmeric or ginger in your meals, or drink rosehips tea daily to combat inflammation.
-Breathe. You can stop the stress at its onset if you learn a few simple breathing techniques that will circumvent your body’s fight or flight response, and halt overproduction of cortisol.

I hope you found this post on the link between stress and illness to be very informative! If you are in the Asheville area and are interested in massage therapy as an avenue to minimize stress, please give us a call.