The Heavy Cost Of Chronic Stress

The Heavy Cost Of Chronic Stress - The Heavy Cost Of...

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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 salmon. 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 go awry. 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 psychiatrists. 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 unrelated. SIGN IN TO RECOMMEND SIGN IN TO E-MAIL REPRINTS SHARE TWITTER
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''What used to be thought of as pathways that led pretty explicitly to one particular disease outcome can now be seen as leading to a whole lot of different outcomes,'' said Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of neurology at Stanford.
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