The Heavy Cost Of Chronic Stress
By ERICA GOODE
Published: Tuesday, December 17, 2002
In this season of bickering relatives and whining children, of
overcrowded department stores and unwritten Christmas
cards, it is instructive to consider the plight of the Pacific
As the fish leap, flop and struggle upstream to spawn, their
levels of cortisol, a potent stress hormone, surge, providing energy to fight the
current. But the hormone also leads the salmon to stop eating. Their digestive
tracts wither away. Their immune systems break down. And after laying their
eggs, they die of exhaustion and infection, their bodies worn out by the journey.
Salmon cannot help being stressed out. They are programmed to die, their
systems propelled into overdrive by evolutionary design.
Humans, on the other hand, are usually subject to stresses of their own making,
the chronic, primarily psychological, pressures of modern life. Yet they also
suffer consequences when the body's biological mechanisms for handling stress
Prolonged or severe stress has been shown to weaken the immune system, strain
the heart, damage memory cells in the brain and deposit fat at the waist rather
than the hips and buttocks (a risk factor for heart disease, cancer and other
illnesses), said Dr. Bruce S. McEwen, director of the neuroendocrinology
laboratory at the Rockefeller University and the author of a new book, ''The End
of Stress as We Know It.'' Stress has been implicated in aging, depression, heart
disease, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, among other illnesses.
Researchers have known for many decades that physical stress takes a toll on the
body. But only relatively recently have the profound effects of psychological
stress on health been widely acknowledged. Two decades ago, many basic
scientists scoffed at the notion that mental state could affect illness. The link
between mind and body was considered murky territory, best left to
But in the last decade, researchers have convincingly demonstrated that
psychological stress can increase vulnerability to disease and have begun to
understand how that might occur.
''If you would have said to me back in 1982 that stress could modulate how the
immune system worked, I would have said, 'Forget about it,' '' said Dr. Ronald
Glaser, an immunologist at Ohio State University.
The more researchers have learned, the clearer it has become that stress may be
a thread tying together many illnesses that were previously thought to be
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