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Is It Stress?

"An ever increasing proportion of the human population suffers and dies from the so-called wear and tear diseases, or degenerative diseases, which are primarily due to stress...disease processes which cannot be eliminated by the methods of classic medicine."

- Hans Selye, M.D. PhD., The Stress of Life

"Do you think this could be caused by stress, Doc? Do you think it's stress?" Patients often ask this question and it always stirs a mixed reaction in me. It's satisfying to know that people are beginning to think about how their daily lives and reactions to them might cause them to have health problems. But I often get the feeling that if I agree with them, then they feel resigned to their fate as if given a prison sentence..."I have stress. It's making me sick. I know it's going to kill me. And I can't do anything about it. And neither can this chiropractor." Actually, they can be quite wrong.

Before describing how a chiropractor can help someone suffering with too much stress, a little discussion of what stress is and how it affects us would be in order. Lack of understanding about what stress is makes it so difficult for me not to make light of their question, "Could it be stress, Doc?"

Stress ("the intensity at a point in a body of the internal forces or components of force which act through the point"), originally an engineering term, has taken on new meaning as applied to humans. Stress is everywhere, and paradoxically, the same stress that can make one person sick can be an invigorating experience for someone else.

Stress has three components: a) the stressor (a microbe, allergen, extreme temperature or a mental irritant), b) the body's defense mechanism (the hormone and nervous systems), and c) the body's surrender mechanism (also hormonal and neurological). Resistance and adaptation to stress depend upon a proper balance of these factors.

Hormones are the body's chemical messengers delivering a "fight or flight" response to stress. The adrenal glands produce a number of hormones moderating the body's response to stress. Three important hormones are: 1)norepinephrine, a relaxant and 2) epinephrine, an aggressive, stressful hormone produced as part of the "fight or flight" reaction, and 3) aldosterone, a hormone involved in sodium and water regulation.  

The body's method of converting these chemical messengers to action is through use of the muscles. Logic would suggest a close relationship between stress and muscular activity. Such a relationship does exist, which makes exercise one of the best single ways to adapt your response to stress - but the effects of aerobic versus anaerobic exercise on stress are very different. Anaerobic activity increases production of epinephrine and depresses norepinephrine. The result is that anaerobic exercise is a stressor. Aerobic exercise. conversely, increases the secretion of norepinephrine, the body's natural muscle relaxant. The feeling of well-being generated by aerobic exercise is not just the personal satisfaction of a good workout, but it is a chemical shift in your body toward a more relaxed physiology.

Many emotional and physical disorders arise from poor adaptive response to stress rather than the direct damaging power of the stressor itself. The effects of the adaptive hormones are either pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. Disorders such as insomnia, irritability, hypertension, gastric ulcers, allergies, and various arthritic, kidney and cardiovascular diseases are the result of improper body responses to stress or to poor control by the nervous system.

The significance of stress to a chiropractic practice is readily apparent. Stress is quickly manifested in disturbances of the neuromusculoskeletal system. The first changes are asymptomatic but are readily apparent on chiropractic examination: muscles have too much tone, there are restrictions of joint movement, pupillary muscle tone in the eye is abnormal, blood pressure does not respond as expected, and mineral losses are evident in the urine.

One can seek to combat harmful stress levels with artificial measures, such as medication, alcohol or caffeine, or by natural measures, such as diet, sleep and exercise or through an understanding of your body's physiology and neurology. Chiropractors being unable to prescribe medications, have explored the latter methods.

As a New Year's offer to the readers of this column, my office will perform a free stress level screening for you. Just bring a sample of your first morning urine (in a clean, rinsed container), and we will measure your kidney's ability to reabsorb sodium. After the laboratory procedure is run, we will set up a time to discuss your results at no charge. Our way of saying "Have a Happy and Stress Controlled New Year."