Psychological stress can take a tremendous toll on your health. One of the reasons for this is because stress causes inflammation, which in turn is a hallmark of most diseases, from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and cancer.
Six years ago, I interviewed Donald (“Donnie”) Yance, an internationally known herbalist and nutritionist, who shared a really surprising piece of information: stress was actually pinned down as a cause of cancer all the way back in 1908. As Donnie said:
“Eli Jones, the great eclectic physician in cancer, and probably the most brilliant person that ever lived on the face of the planet, wrote a book in 1908 called “Cancer – Its Causes, Symptoms and Treatment.” There isn’t one inaccuracy I can find in that book, written more than 100 years ago.”
In this book, Dr. Jones revealed the top causes of cancer, and the No. 1 cause he listed was unresolved stress. Since then, a number of studies have confirmed this link. In the video above, two doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Center go into some of the details now known about stress and cancer.
Chronic Stress Makes Cancer Spread
Most recently, a study done on mice found that when the animals were chronically stressed, their lymphatic systems underwent changes that allowed cancer to spread more quickly and easily. As reported by Science Alert:1
“Although the study hasn’t been replicated in humans as yet, it’s a huge step towards understanding how stress – which has long been linked to cancer progression – actually helps tumour cells escape…
“Not for a minute are we suggesting that someone who’s just been diagnosed with cancer should not be stressed, because that would have to be one of the most stressful situations”… Erica Sloan from Monash University in Australia, told ABC News.2
“But rather how do we look after cancer patients, because this suggests that stress not only affects patient wellbeing but also gets into the body and affects how the tumour progresses.”
How Does Stress Promote the Spread of Cancer?
Cancer cells typically spread to other areas of the body either via your blood vessels, or through your lymphatic system. Stress hormones affect both of these pathways or channels. Here they were trying to determine how stress hormones affect the spread of cancer cells through the lymphatic system.
The mechanism they found is related to the way adrenaline activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to increase the rate of lymph formation. Adrenaline also causes physical changes in the lymph vessels, allowing cancer cells to migrate into other body parts at a faster rate.
The National Cancer Institute has also previously stated that research with animal models suggests:3
“[Y]our body’s neuroendocrine response (release of hormones into your blood in response to stimulation of your nervous system) can directly alter important processes in cells that help protect against the formation of cancer, such as DNA repair and the regulation of cell growth.”
Norepinephrine can stimulate tumor cells to produce two compounds (matrix metalloproteinases called MMP-2 and MMP-9) that break down the tissue around the tumor cells, thereby allowing the cells to more easily move into your bloodstream.
Once there, they can travel to other organs and tissues and form additional tumors.
Norepinephrine may also stimulate tumor cells to release a chemical (vascular endothelial growth factor, or VEGF) that aids the growth of the blood vessels that feed cancer cells. This too can increase the growth and spread of the cancer.
Epinephrine — yet another stress hormone — has also been found to cause changes in certain cancer cells, specifically prostate and breast cancer, in ways that makes them resistant to apoptosis (cell death).
This means that emotional stress can both contribute to the development of cancer and reduce the effectiveness of treatments.6
Work Stress Increases Your Risk For Heart Disease
Not surprisingly, psychological stress can also take a toll on your heart. As revealed in the documentary film “Of Hearts and Minds,” your heart actually contains neurons, similar to those in your brain, and your heart and brain are closely connected, creating a symbiotic whole.
One factor that causes a significant amount of stress for many is their job, and according to recent research,7there’s a dose-dependent relationship between the number of hours you put in each week and your risk for developing heart disease. As reported by The New York Times:8
“After adjusting for age, sex, income and other factors, they found that for each additional hour of work per week over 10 years, there was a 1 percent increase in the risk for heart disease.
Compared with working 45 hours a week, working 55 hours increased the risk by 16 percent, 60 hours by 35 percent, 65 hours by 52 percent, and 70 hours by 74 percent.
Working 75 hours or more doubled the risk for a cardiovascular problem — angina, coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke or heart attack.”
Stress Levels Continue to Rise in the US
Other recent research points out that Americans are more stressed out than ever before. In 2012, Carnegie Mellon University researchers reported that stress levels increased as much as 30 percent between the years 1983 and 2009.9
More recently, between 2014 and 2015 the average stress levels rose from 4.9 to 5.1 on a 10-point stress scale, according to the American Psychological Association. The greatest increase was noted among adults reporting being under “extreme stress.” This category rose from 18 percent to 24 percent.
The American Psychological Association has performed this stress survey once a year since 2007, and money and work have consistently been the top two sources of stress.
Another work stress survey from 2013 showed that 8 in 10 Americans are stressed about their jobs.10 Tied as the No. 1 stressor were poor compensation and unreasonable workloads. Discrimination — whether real or anticipated — is also a major source of stress for many.
As reported by Time Magazine:11
“This most recent survey also tracked the impact of discrimination on stress. Some 61 percent of adults surveyed reported that they have experienced unfair treatment or discrimination on a day-to-day basis, and many of them experienced stress in connection to that.
Hispanic and black adults reported being stressed by even the anticipation of discrimination, with 3 in 10 who reported experiencing day-to-day discrimination saying they changed their behavior or appearance to avoid harassment or get good service.”
Is Your Stress Ruining Your Adrenal Function?
Chronic stress also taxes your adrenals, which can lead to adrenal fatigue. Hormones produced by your adrenal glands control a number of bodily functions, including your “fight or flight” response to stress. Once adrenal fatigue sets in, your resilience to stress may falter or give out completely, making you hypersensitive to even minor stressors that normally wouldn’t throw you off.
- Lingering unresolved negative emotions such as anger, fear, guilt, and depression
- Overwork, including physical or mental strain
- Sleep deprivation and/or light-cycle disruption (such as working the night shift or often going to sleep late)
- Chronic inflammation, infection, illness or pain
There are many ways to measure adrenal function. The most common include a 24 hour urine test, timed salivary collections, or a blood draw. For most people a timed urinary collection is the most efficient test. You simply urinate on a test strip at four specific times in a 24 hour period; let the strips dry, and send them to the lab for analysis.
The test results come back with a very comprehensive analysis and colorful graphics. The test can be obtained atdutchtest.com. It’s what I use to check my own adrenal function.
While milder cases of adrenal insufficiency may be addressed using herbs and dietary supplements, such as B and C vitamins, CoQ10, astralagus and milk thistle, just to name a few, more severe cases may require taking low doses of hormones such as DHEA pregnenolone, cortisol, testosterone, progesterone, and/or estrogens.
Conquer Your Stress with Energy Psychology
Since psychological stress plays such a significant role in health, addressing your emotions is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. Stress is an inescapable part of life for most people, but it’s important to understand that it is how you deal with it that will determine whether it will translate into health problems later on.
As noted in a recent article about stress in The New York Times,13 the stress reaction should dissipate as quickly as possible after the perceived danger has passed. The scientific term for this is resilience — “the ability of your body to rapidly return to normal, both physically and emotionally, after a stressful event.”
Stress management tools such as breathing exercises can help you develop greater resilience against stress. Another favorite is the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). It’s an energy psychology tool that can help reprogram your body’s reactions to everyday stress, thereby reducing your chances of developing adverse health effects. It’s similar to acupuncture, which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians.
EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations. This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist.14 By doing so, you reprogram the way your body responds to emotional stressors. Since these stressors are usually connected to physical problems, many people’s diseases and other symptoms can improve or disappear as well.
For a demonstration, please see the video above, featuring EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman. For serious or deep-seated emotional problems, I recommend seeing an experienced EFT therapist, as there is a significant art to the process that requires a high level of sophistication if serious problems are to be successfully treated.
Reframing Stressful Events
Researchers have identified four factors that determine the intensity of our response to stress; clinicians sometimes use the acronym N.U.T.S. when referring to them:
- Threat perception
- Sense of no control
One psychological tool that can help you change your response to a stressful event is known as “reframing.” As noted by Chris Kresser, a licensed acupuncturist interested in functional medicine and stress-reduction principles:15
“Let’s say you lose your job. If you perceive that event as a sign of your worthlessness and an indicator that you’ll never be successful, I think you can imagine how your body will respond (it won’t be fun!). But what if you saw the loss of your job as an opportunity to pursue a longtime dream that you’ve ignored and a chance for a fresh start?
In this case, losing your job would be unlikely to trigger a harmful stress response and may even be a source of “eustress,” or positive stress.
I’m not suggesting that it’s possible, or even desirable, to put a positive spin on tragic or horrific events. But if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by all of the minor, daily hassles that characterize most of our lives, reframing can be a powerful way of mitigating the impact of that stress.”
Reframing Tips and Tricks
So how do you go about reframing your response to a stressful event or experience? Kresser lists five strategies that can be helpful in this situation, including the following:
- Question your thoughts. Just because you think it doesn’t mean it’s real or accurate. Oftentimes our thoughts reveal more about our ingrained belief systems than actual reality, so you can choose to not believe every thought that crosses your mind.
- Turn perceived threat into a challenge. Oftentimes, there are hidden opportunities in stressful events. So ask yourself, how can this experience help you grow and improve?
- Expand your time horizon. Ask yourself whether this event will actually matter a month, a year, or a decade from now. Do you think you’ll even remember it?
- Increase your perceived sense of control. While actually being in control of everything is impossible, it is yourperceived sense of control that matters. You can increase your sense of being in control by a) focusing on that which you do have influence over, b) coming up with creative solutions, and c) making a list of resources or people you know you can turn to for help, should you need it.