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The Mind Body Corner with Dr. Melissa Clarke: Why Stress Can Make Us Sick

It is health which is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver. – Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi

What is health? A medical “check-up” often focuses on making sure we are not sick – checking our blood pressures, mammograms, colonoscopies. These are all excellent things to keep on top of, but do not always necessarily focus on “health”. You can have all good results but still not be healthy. That is because health, or wholeness, is really not only a physical concern ; it starts with something only we can do for ourselves – focusing on well-being, both mentally and emotionally, which in turn leads to maintaining a healthy body.

Doctors, herbs and medicines do not heal us. These options give our bodies the right substrates/building blocks to work with in order to for our body to heal itself. When we cut our finger for example, the body has the intelligence to send extra blood components that are specifically designed to form a seal, harden, protect the body from invasion from bacteria at that spot and eventually close up like nothing ever happened. This regeneration is happening at every minute of every day in our bodies. We have cancer cells popping up daily, are constantly bombarded by toxins in or food/air/water, and are exposed to bacteria and viruses. Yet most of us do not get sick from these things at the same rate we are exposed to them.

Our bodies are in a constant state of healing to stay well on a minute to minute basis. Hormones and messenger chemicals turn on and turn off these important repair systems in our bodies. One of the biggest factors in how effectively this system functions is our emotions. “Feeling stressed” sets off a separate set of hormones and messenger chemicals via the nervous system that mobilize the body’s resources for the “fight or flight response” and affect almost every organ in the body. Blood pressure goes up, the heart pumps faster, the intestines slow down, and blood vessels constrict, just to name a few. This system works great when there is real physical danger. It does not work well when it is always “on” due to feeling stressed, and often leads to the common ailments we experience. Here are just 5 common ways this happens:

Headaches
With stress, your hormones set off a series of neurochemical events in your brain that stimulates your nerves and causes your blood vessels to swell. In many people this is felt as tension headaches and migraines.

Stomach Upset/ Reflux/ Irritable Bowel Disease
Anxiety and stress lead the body to make more digestive acid, which leads to heartburn. The stomach also can take longer to empty food, which causes gas and bloating, and cause the intestines to contract more, leading to cramping and diarrhea.

Colds and Flu
Stress suppresses the immune system, making you susceptible to catching airborne illnesses. In a study at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, researchers surveyed volunteers about what was going on in their lives, and then infected them with a cold virus. The men and women coping with stresses ranging from a bad marriage to unemployment were twice as likely to get sick as those with fewer problems.

Weight Gain
Under stress, the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released. With chronic exposure, these stimulate hunger since your body assumes you will need energy to defend yourself. We often respond to this hunger by eating the items which will provide the quickest energy – fats and carbs. This of course leads to weight gain..

Neck and Back Pain
Stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system to reduce blood flow to the muscles, which makes them prone to spasms. In addition, our posture when stressed tends to suffer, since we tend to hunch over and tense the shoulder and neck muscles, making the muscle tension worse.

So how can we set up an environment that protects us from the effects of stress? In the next issue we will look at ways that research has proven – nutrition, sleep, exercise, and practices for emotional well-being – which we can use to lessen the effects of stress and promote self healing as well.

Melissa Clarke, MD

Dr. Clark is author of the new book “Excuse Me Doctor! I’ve Got What? Taking Ownership of Your Health and making Healthcare Reform Work for You This book was recently selected by Essence Magazine as one of its top picks and is spotlighted as a great read for helping one to keep his/her New Year’s resolution on keeping your body healthy in 2015

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