Is your lifestyle killing you? Liza Finlay reports on the dangers of chronic stress

Is your lifestyle killing you? Liza Finlay reports on the dangers of chronic stress

You have a deadline to meet at work. Your partner is traveling, yet again. There’s a family crisis brewing. You grip the steering wheel and curse all the way home through city streets jammed with traffic. Once there, you pour yourself a drink, supersize your plate of pasta and seek solace in So You Think You Can Dance Canada (which is proving difficult since your BlackBerry, perched next to you on the couch, is pinging incessantly).

You’re stressed. So what? Everyone is. It’s no big deal.

In fact, it’s a bigger deal than we think. Until fairly recently, scientists believed stress was just a bit player in our health dramas and merely influenced the lifestyle choices—drinking, smoking, overeating, late nights—that cause malicious maladies. What doctors know now that they didn’t even five years ago is stress plays a starring role in all sorts of ailments. It unleashes a torrent of physiological changes that beat up the body, breaking down its defences, clear-cutting a wide swath straight to heart disease and diabetes.

“Stress hormones are the warriors. They go to the front and take the first hit of the battle,” says Sonia Lupien, director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at Montreal’s Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital. “But there’s a price to pay. When a hormone takes hits all the time, it will become deregulate…and depending on your lifestyle and genetic background, you can develop one or more of what we call ‘stress-related disorders,’ such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

What’s worse, many of the catastrophic chemical changes that result from stress are unseen and unfelt, leading some to label stress a silent killer. But here’s the kicker: when we go from one stressful situation to another for a long period of time (3–4 months), we become chronically stressed. And recent research has found that the chronically stressed body eventually loses its ability to regulate stress hormones. It’s as if the brain has turned on a tap, releasing a flood of “fight or flight” hormones, but is unable to turn the tap off. We become stuck in the stress response, and cortisol (the main stress hormone) continues to course through our bodies, creating a cascade of problems.

“It’s a ‘cry wolf’ scenario,” says Toronto naturopathic doctor Penny Kendall-Reed, co-author of The Complete Doctor’s Stress Solution. “When stress-hormone levels are high for a long time, the body fails to send a message to the brain to order the adrenal glands to stop producing cortisol. Our body actually loses the ability to turn off the adrenal glands.” The constant flood of cortisol triggers the release of extra insulin, explains Kendall-Reed, and that surge in insulin paves the way for weight gain, diabetes and increased blood cholesterol.

Indeed, according to Kendall-Reed, stress plays a role in the health of every single patient who walks through her door. But it’s her female patients she is most concerned about. According to a Statistics Canada survey from 2008, more than 22 percent of Canadians reported being “extremely or quite a bit stressed” and national stress levels peaked at 28 percent for women aged 35 to 44—the age group most likely to be juggling a career and a family. And because women are stressed more often than men, they are at greater risk for the more deadly, chronic variety of stress.

“Society has become so inherently stressful that we’ve forgotten we’re supposed to identify and deal with stressors,” agrees Brian Baker, associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

Temperament plays a part—some of us are just more laid-back than others—but the brain has a larger role. “The brain is the detector of threat,” says Lupien, “and the brain activates our stress response.” The amygdala, for instance, is important in the processing of emotions, and some amygdalae are simply more sensitive than others—which explains, says Kendall-Reed, why some of us will rage at red-light racers while others simply shrug.

What is clear, though, is that ignoring your stress won’t work. Kendall-Reed urges her patients to have their cortisol levels checked with the same assiduousness that they would their cholesterol. And she arms each of them with an arsenal of de-stressing strategies (see sidebar on the previous page for tips from her and other experts). An evening with your favourite TV show isn’t a bad one—provided the phone and BlackBerry are turned off.


1. RECOGNIZE THE SOURCE OF YOUR STRESS so you can deal with it. Try spending one hour per day alone—no television, cellphone or email. “The first thing that pops into your head in that silence is your stressor,” says Lupien.

2. EXPAND YOUR CIRCLE OF FRIENDS. Studies show that being a part of social groups boosts your mental well-being and resilience (aka your capacity to adapt to adversity). Recent research even suggests that having strong social support reduces the release of stress-induced cortisol. So join a sports team, find a book club or sign up for a cooking class.

3. LEARN TO SAY NO. It sounds simple, but assertiveness is crucial to stress reduction, says Baker. It helps us steer clear of taking on too much.

4. ASK YOUR DOCTOR about natural remedies. Kendall-Reed’s favourite “holiday in a bottle” is a supplement called milk decapeptide. “It binds directly to the adrenal glands and hypothalamus, resetting the amount of cortisol secreted,” she says, noting that magnolia flower has a similar effect. Both are available at health-food stores.

5. “REWIRE” YOUR BRAIN with strategies such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a technique developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical School that aims to enhance your awareness of what’s happening in your body and mind. It “lowers the amplitude of your response to stressors,” says Dr. Sheldon Tobe, who is studying MBSR’s effect on blood pressure for the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Ontario. He teaches patients to first acknowledge the stressor and deal with it if possible. At the same time, always be aware of positive or even neutral stimuli: a warming sun, a nice smell, a coworker’s smile. “Doing so on a continual, ongoing basis,” he says, “reduces the impact of any stresses that come up.” (Learn more about MBSR.)

“Stressed to the Max” has been edited for; the complete story and where-to-buy appears in the December 2009 issue of FLARE.