Stress. Along with physical trauma and pollutants, stress is responsible for many, if not most, of our modern health problems.

When we say stress, we aren’t even talking about the major stressors we all experience from time to time: loss of a job, loss of a loved one, a change in location. All of these stressors are difficult to deal with, to be sure, but tend to cause short term problems. In other words, the stress comes and goes, our lives and bodies adapt and we return to health.

The damage comes from what psychologists call MMRs: Multiple Minor Stressors. MMRs are small stressors that happen one after another after another, often many at one time. Trouble at work, injury, relationships problems, lost keys, car problems, trouble in school, over-commitment, financial problems. This state can go on for weeks and years, depending on our life situations. Add to this physical trauma and the effects of pollutants (both which increase the effects of stress and decrease our ability to handle stress) and our bodies are in a constant state of stress. One more stressor, especially one major one, can be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

But what are the effects of this stress? Stress affects the entire body. It is supposed to but, here is the key, it is supposed to for only very short periods of time. Stress is meant to help us survive in times of danger. It is supposed to come and go quickly. This is called the “Fight or Flight” reaction and it is followed by the “Rest and Relax” reaction. In chronic stress, the Rest and Relax reaction never happens. How does this work? What does this do? More importantly, what can you do about it?

Stress first affects our adrenal glands – small glands that sit on top of our kidneys. When we perceive something as stress, our adrenals go into action pumping out hormones that allow us to handle that stress. They increase our heart rate, move function away from our digestion, store more fat, burn all available sugars, move blood away from our brains, increase our blood pressure, hold on to fluid, get us ready to run or fight and, in the end, handle the damage caused by the ‘danger’ to our bodies.

What happens when that danger never seems to go away? What happens when we have MMRs?

What happens is we run our adrenals until they can barely run anymore but, still, they keep pumping out hormones. Our bodies try to respond but can’t and hormones that were supposed to help us end up causing harm.

We drag through our day, feeling tired, often confused, lack the memory we once had and the ability, desire or energy to do things we once enjoyed.

We try to replace the loss of function and the loss of energy with coffee and energy drinks but those work by pushing the adreneals even harder, by squeezing more out of them, and the short term gains are bought at the cost of further damage.

Let’s look at some of these, what they are supposed to do in the short term and what happens if they stay around too long.

DHEA. This is often called the “Mother of all Hormones” because it regulates many of our body’s functions and keeps them in balance. DHEA is responsible for creating hormones we need to burn fat, regulate digestion and cardiovascular function. In other words, our stomach and heart needs it.

Under constant stress, our bodies cannot produce the DHEA needed because our adrenals are taxed. The result is we gain weight, our blood pressure goes up, we no longer burn sugar and, instead, we feel tired. Our sex drive may decrease but our irritability may increase. DHEA also helps regulate our immune system and decreases in DHEA are linked to pancreatic cancer as well as many other types of cancer.

Further, continued decreases in DHEA from exhausted adrenal glands can affect our sleep and result in depression. This results in greater stress and the cycle continues.

Cortisol. Under stress, cortisol holds onto fat reserves and decreases the function of organs we don’t need when we are fighting or running. When cortisol levels don’t drop because the body is constantly stressed, we gain weight because cortisol is telling our body to hang on to the fat. It also tells the immune system “we don’t need you right now” and it keeps telling it that, dropping our ability to fight common colds, flues, viruses and cancers. This increases our risk not only of becoming ill, but of multiple and systemic infections from common bacteria we would normally have no trouble fighting off.

Ldosterone. Under stress, ldosterone cause short term swelling. That’s right - swelling. When you are in danger, swelling is a good thing because it protects our joints and organs. It does this by holding onto salt and that holds onto water. Over time, ldosterone that keeps pumping out at stress levels causes us to hold that on to more and more salt and results in edema and weight gain. That is not the worst of it. It can result in hypertension and, according to the American Heart Association, actually damage the texture of the heart.

Adrenaline. We need adrenaline when get blood pumping for fight or flight. It gets us ready by moving blood from our core and brain to our limbs and it does this fast by increasing our pulse and blood pressure. Over time, adrenaline weakens digestion because of lack of sufficient blood to the organs, it weakens the immune system, stresses the heart and the entire vascular system and may result in damaged blood vessels and stroke.

Noradrenaline. Like adrenaline, we need this when stressed. Noradenaline helps return our bodies to normal using the rest and relax response. When that stress continues, we may find we are depressed. This may well be from a lack of noradrenaline.

Androgens. This is a hormone that mostly affects women. In the short term, it gets us ready to fight. If it hangs around too long, it results in irritability and, sometimes, aggression.

What can you do about this?

A recent study by Vanderbilt University tells us supplements don’t really help. We must remove whatever stress we can and get the body back into balance. How can we do that and kick in the lost “Rest and Relax” response? There are several things you Oriental Medical Doctor or Acupuncture Physician can do.

She will examine you and determine which systems are most in need or protection and work to strengthen them. She will also help initiate the rest and relax response by balancing out the body so your hormone levels are in balance again. She will then set out to repair the damage done to correct the problems causes and get your immune system back into shape and give your adrenal glands a rest.

She may give you herbs to assist in the balancing and correction and help you see what stressors you an remove or help you reevaluate some things so they no longer seem to be stressors. She will also help you repair the damage from trauma and pollutants to your body so you can handle stress better in the future.

We cannot get rid of stress completely but constant stress is associated with a host of diseases from ulcers and heartburn to cancers and heart disease. It affects the immune system and leaves us vulnerable to minor and major diseases and many things which were once rarely seen or which doctors once thought were “just in our head.”

Together, you and you Acupuncture Physician can end the cycle of stress and disease and return you to balance and health.