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The Dangers of Excessive Stress

 Don Colbert, MD,  "The Dangers of Excessive Stress: Parts 1 and 2;" (Charisma Magazine, January and February 2001).

The Dangers of Excessive Stress: Part 1

The majority of the patients that I see on a daily basis are overstressed, and this contributes greatly to the illness or disease from which they are Dr. Don Colbert : The Dangers of Excessive Stresssuffering… Our mind and body seek a state of peace and relaxation, which is called homeostasis. In this state, our mind and body, remain in complete harmony, keeping excessive demands from being placed on our organs and tissues. Thus, our minds and bodies are able to stay strong, energized, charged, and resistant to disease.

When a person becomes “stressed out” by too many demands being placed on them (including lack of sleep, a traumatic event, illness, emotional problem, verbal abuse, etc.) reactions begin to occur in the body that lead to the general adaptation syndrome. This syndrome is simply the way in which the body responds to stress.

There are three main stages to the general adaptation syndrome: the alarm stage, the resistance stage, and the exhaustion stage. The first response to a stressor is the alarm response, which is a “fight or flight” reaction. This is simply a survival response that God placed in us for our protection. For instance, if you were planting some shrubs in your yard, heard a rattling noise, looked around, and saw a six-foot rattlesnake, you would suddenly experience an alarm reaction. Your heart rate would increase, your mind would become very alert, breathing would increase, digestive secretions and enzymes would decrease, perspiration would increase, and your muscles would prepare for “fight or flight.”

This reaction occurs because the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands are stimulated by a survival mechanism in the hypothalamus of the brain to produce hormones that get us ready for fighting or fleeing. As a result of this alarm response, you would run from the rattlesnake. The running would help to dissipate the alarm reaction by burning off the stress chemicals that are charging through your body. Once you are safe from the perceived danger, you could then settle back into homeostasis, becoming relaxed and tranquil.

However, if this alarm response occurred fifty to a hundred times a day over events—such as having an argument with your child or spouse, being cut off in traffic, being antagonized by a fellow employee, or watching a thriller on an action movie—high-energy chemicals and hormones would be pumped throughout the body without an outlet of fighting or fleeing. They are then left to stew in their own juices, and this is how the damage begins.

When the alarm reactions is triggered multiple times throughout the day over emotional or physical stresses, it can eventually lead to anxiety, panic attacks, depression, food allergies, malabsorption, digestive problems, irritable bowel syndrome, tension headaches, palpitations, and even high blood pressure. The alarm response is usually brief; however, when it occurs continually throughout the day, and a person perceives a loss of control, it usually leads to the second stage of the body’s response to stress, which is the resistance stage.

The Dangers of Excessive Stress: Part 2

The resistance stage occurs if the stressor is severe or persists for a prolonged period of time, causing the mind or body to perceive a loss of control. This actually locks in a long-lasting stress response.

The resistance stage is a natural survival response placed in us in order to survive without adequate nutrition, such as during times of famine, war, and pestilence. It actually prepares the body for long-term survival. I see this commonly in patients, who have been working the same job for years, feel trapped with no way for advancement, and perceive a loss of control. Someone may also enter the resistance stage when they are under considerable financial stress with no way out and no way to pay all the bills. This may occur if there is chronic illness or strife in the home, or any other situation in which they perceive a loss of control or have “give-up” attitude.

During this stage, a person usually begins to overtax the adrenal cortex, as it produces excessive amounts of cortisol. This natural substance is actually similar to the drug cortisone. Cortisol cause blood pressure to rise slowly, sex drive to decrease, fats to be released into the blood, and gastric acid to increase in the stomach. The body is on high alert, unable to sleep well, and the immune system is usually compromised. If the resistance stage continues for prolonged periods of time, a person will eventually enter into the final stage of the general adaptation syndrome, which is adrenal exhaustion.

Adrenal exhaustion is the worst stage because a person is almost assured of developing disease if it continues. Probably the most common symptom of adrenal exhaustion that I see is fatigue. A person can sleep eight to ten hours a night and still awaken fatigued. Their sleep is not restful because they usually don’t enter into the deeper stages of sleep. During the exhaustion stage, many of the organs and systems in the body have been harmed. There is usually a significant enlargement of the adrenal cortex from excessive production of cortisol. There is also usually a decrease in the amount of white blood cells, a rise in blood pressure, excessive stomach acid, decrease in the size of the thymus gland and spleen, and a significant compromise in immune function. Thus, a person usually becomes very susceptible to infection, allergies, candida, autoimmune disease, and even cancer. Patients in the exhaustion stage gain more body fat in the abdominal region and actually lose muscle mass because cortisol causes muscle wasting. Additionally, they may have elevated cholesterol and triglycerides.

Unfortunately, when most patients finally come to my practice, they are already in this final stage of the general adaptation syndrome. Often they have been to numerous other doctors, and while some medicine and treatments have helped short-term, there has been nothing that has helped most of these patients on a long-term basis. I have learned when a person reaches adrenal exhaustion, we shouldn’t just treat their body with vitamins, herbs, and nutritional supplements. We must also treat the person mentally, emotionally, and most of all, spiritually. 

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