Stress and Illness – Topic of the Month – November 2013

Article by Dr. Paul Kennedy
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Doctor Paul KennedyMost people understand that being stressed or under stress is not a “healthy “ state—especially over time. But what is the physiological link to stress and an unhealthy state (i.e. illness)? Indeed, what is known as “short-term” stress (as opposed to “chronic”stress) can actually boost the immune system rather than compromise it. So, what are the fitness and health factors that help to keep stress related illness from happening? A look at stress related illness causation, then, is appropriate. The list of causes, as one might guess, is varied.

One of the most common areas of stress causation deals with nutrition. When the body’s nutrients are depleted, as happens often with chronic and/or long-term stress situations, critical nutrients in the body acquired from the diet are used up at a faster rate than normal—especially minerals. This depletion has a direct link to a slower metabolism—the rate at which one burns calories—and the result can be unwanted weight gain. Additionally, stress can encourage poor eating habits that produce a higher intake of junk food and more processed foods. In other words, meals higher in calories and lower in nutritional value can compromise the immune system over time. In a related way, there is research that indicates that stress can increase the risk for diabetes since stress can actually alter the insulin response from cells. Moreover, a stress-related suppressed immune system can even increase the incidence of some forms of cancer due to the suppression of what are known as naturally occurring killer cells which help prevent the growth of small cancerous tumors.

Other major stress related conditions and diseases include peptic ulcers and ulcerative colitis (a severe inflammation of the intestinal tract) and the buildup of arterial plaque (the substance that can block blood flow to the arteries—especially the cardiac artery). Even the incidence of viral infections increases in the presence of chronic-stress. It should be noted that not everyone is susceptible to chronic stress and disease causation at the same level since there does appear to be a genetic aspect to almost every illness or disease—even those possibly caused by chronic stress. But possibly avoiding “acquired” diseases is also a function of proper nutrition and regular physical activity. By avoiding high fat foods and consuming foods that are high in anti-oxidants, minimally processed, preferably organic, high in fiber and as fresh as possible, stress can be reduced as a result of more balanced nutrition. And, of course, regular exercise (about 30 minutes of some type of moderately brisk activity) on most days of the week is a known stress REDUCER as well as the best way to avoid many of the conditions and diseases mentioned above. The physiological effect with relation to reduced stress appears to be the influence of regular exercise on the increased “flexibility” of the arterial system as well as the improved permeability of the cells to oxygen and glucose. With more available oxygen and increased availability of glucose to the cells (glucose is the “fuel” that we receive from the food that we eat), blood pressure and blood glucose levels are more easily controlled. This, in turn, can help with reducing the effects of hypertension resulting from chronic stress.

So even if some level of stress is a part of your life—and it is for most of us—a proper diet and regular exercise can help to keep the effects of that stress from becoming a health and wellness issue. It might not make your boss any friendlier or make the technical aspects of your job any easier, but it can help to keep your personal health plan on track and maybe even help you to complete your assigned “tasks” with a bit more efficiency and a lot less, well—stress !

I’m Dr. Paul Kennedy and that’s the “Be Fit, Stay Fit” Topic of the Month for November 2013. Good luck with YOUR fitness program. I KNOW you can do it!

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