What is stress?
How do we define it? It is hard to measure because what could be for one person a very stressful situation, for another the same situation could be a fun experience. It depends on the person and each of us need to gauge what we can handle. The same could be true for physical activity or the foods we consume. Some people can't handle as much physical stress than others or need a diet that is more restrictive than others.
The first researcher of stress
In 1936 Hans Selye, a Hungarian endocrinologist while working in Canada made a ground breaking discovery that earned him recognition with his work on stress and its affect on health. His experiments, led him to the idea that in some cases, disease was not caused by a microbe. Instead his experiments showed that various noxious stimuli either of emotional, physical or chemical origin could disrupt homeostasis and create conditions of disease in the body. This began when he saw the same reactions taking place in mice no matter what noxious substance were injected into their bodies. The common result to this stress, was adrenal hypertrophy, thymus gland atrophy, along with gastric and duodenal ulcers.
General Adaptation Syndrome (G.A.S.)
This was Selye's detailed observation that won him international acclaim. He was able to describe in these three stages what happens to us when we encounter stress.
1. Alarm Stage: In this phase the initial reaction of the body is to treat stress as an immediate danger and raise its fight or flight hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.
2. Resistance Stage: In this phase the emergency is over but the body remains on high alert and tries to cope with the effects of stress.
3. Exhaustion Stage: In this phase the stress has been prolonged and the body can no longer cope adequately to stress.
These three stages to describe the effects of stress are still used today. Selye's observations also included the reaction of the hypothalamus and the pituitary's effect on the adrenal glands. Physicians refer to the H.P.A. axis to further explain the picture of stress and its effects on the body. The H.P.A. axis or hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis and its over activation is a key idea in understanding how our bodies are handling stress.
How would stress to the H.P.A. axis present itself?
Most often it presents itself as a problem with either the adrenal cortex or adrenal medulla. The adrenal cortex is responsible for steroid hormones, and the adrenal medulla is responsible for mineral corticoid hormones that regulate water balance in our bodies. Secondarily it could affect our immune system, blood sugar regulation, thyroid, our ability to sleep, fatigue, osteoporosis, blood pressure, dizziness, heart palpitations, anxiety, depression, overall inflammatory state, memory problems, and sex hormone problems such as hot flashes and low libido.
Is there a way to determine adrenal stress?
Today we have more sophisticated testing procedures to measure the effects of stress. Today we have labs that use cost effective and simple saliva testing to measure adrenal hormones such as cortisol, DHEA, 17 OH Pregesterone, and also SIgA. Below is a synopsis of what these tests represent and why they are important to measure when evaluating a patient with symptoms mentioned above.
Cortisol measured at four times during the day gives a snapshot of our H.P.A. axis function. Excess cortisol is associated with the initial phase of stress and can suppress thyroid function. Excess cortisol at night could interfere with normal sleep cycles or cause damage to the hippocampus region of the brain and affect memory. High cortisol has an anti-insulin effect impairing the utilization of glucose for energy. Low cortisol is associated with prolonged stress. Deficiency is common with chronic inflammatory conditions because cortisol is a precursor to cortisone a natural anti-inflammatory produced within the body.
DHEA (dehydroepiandosterone) is a precursor for estrogen and testosterone. Lower levels could lead to lower levels of these important sex hormones.
17 OH Progesterone is important because it is a hormone downstream from Pregnenolone. Low levels of 17 OH Progesterone could indicate a reason for lowered cortisol levels, and also low progesterone levels.
(Cortisol, DHEA, and Pregnenolone are all dependent on cholesterol for production).
SIgA is secretory immunoglobulin A, the most prevalent of all the immunoglobulins. Low levels of SIgA would indicate chronic stress that is affecting the overall output of immunoglobulin A production. This could indicate a chronic infection or chronic food or chemical sensitivity that is suppressing the immune system.