Dr. Kevin Ritzenthaler, DC, DCBCN
“Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” is the title of a highly acclaimed book by Stanford Neurologist Dr. Robert Sapolsky. In it, he distinguishes between the “real” stresses of life encountered by wild animals and the psychological stresses experienced by humans. He goes on to demonstrate the devastating effect of chronic stress on the human body. The concept, when fully understood, explains in a very logical manner, how stress is slowly killing us and what we can do about it.
Keep reading here to learn the gist of these ideas and learn how to better cope with these modern day stresses in order to live a happier, healthier lifestyle. Visit Innovative Health in Weston today to discover how to feel better and live better.
Fight or Flight
Humans and animals alike are born with a biological stress response called “fight or flight.” When we perceive that we are in a life-or-death situation, the chemistry of our body changes in such a way as to help us to save ourselves from the threat.
During this hyper state of arousal, a flood of hormones are released by the adrenal glands including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline boosts energy and increases heart rate and blood pressure. The burst of cortisol impacts blood pressure, raises blood sugar levels, and increases lung capacity. During fight or flight, cortisol also reduces non-essential life-saving functions including: altering the immune system, suppressing the digestive and reproductive systems, and turning off some of the processes that enable your body to grow.
You can imagine that this would come in handy for a zebra who is being chased by a lion. But after “three minutes of screaming terror,” the zebra has either been eaten by the lion or has escaped. If he’s is lucky enough to have survived, the stress response ends, he feels safe again, his body function returns to normal, and he goes about his day.
As important as the fight or flight response is, it’s equally important for the body to return to a state of relaxation. The stress response is intended to be a short-term response.
But we humans are different. We experience stress for many reasons that have nothing to do with life or death – paying bills, raising a family, maintaining relationships, performing at our jobs; these are known as psychological stressors, or fears that exist in our heads. Now, that’s not to say that these types of stress are not real to us in the here and now, but they are not actual life-or-death situations.
The body can’t distinguish between the stress of your loved one being ill and the stress of being chased by the lion. In both cases, it will release adrenaline and cortisol to enable you to deal with the situation at hand. The problem is that many of us find ourselves in a constant state of psychological stress. As soon as we overcome one stressful situation, we find ourselves in another. The bills are paid for the month, but now you need to resolve that fight with your spouse and then prepare for an important presentation at work.
When you’re in an actual fight or flight situation, your body uses up the extra cortisol that it produces. However, if you aren’t actually “fighting” or “fleeing,” that cortisol has nowhere to go. Remember the zebra? When the lion began chasing him, his body kicked in the adrenaline and cortisol to enable him to escape. He then burned off the excess cortisol as he was running away and returned to a non-stressed state: the cortisol and adrenaline production was halted, his blood pressure came down, his heart rate decreased, and his other bodily functions returned to normal.
The stress response is helpful in the short term, but the impact of being in a continued state of stress is devastating to the health of your body. Research has shown that a prolonged stress response and increased levels of cortisol can cause heart disease, depression, digestive issues, sleep problems, anxiety, weight gain, sexual dysfunction, memory loss, and many other serious health issues. There are also studies that show that increased levels of stress in children can shut down production of growth hormones and stunt physical development.
Coping with Stress
So, what are you supposed to do? The easy advice is to tell you to eliminate the stressors that you can, and stop worrying so much about the rest. But that’s not very realistic. Instead, you need to find healthy ways to cope with the stressors of life.
Physically, regular exercise is a great way to simulate the “fight” response and lower cortisol levels. Any activity that increases your heart rate will work, such as walking, biking, jogging, swimming, yard work, Zumba, or kickboxing. Exercising for at least 30 minutes a day, most days of the week, will reduce your daily and long-term levels of cortisol.
If trying to find a way to add exercise into your daily schedule is stressing you out, think about ways that you can incorporate it into your existing routines. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, dance while you’re brushing your teeth, park on the far side of the parking lot, move your printer to the other side of your office, and find other ways to get moving. Breaking up the 30 minutes in to multiple spurts throughout the day will still be beneficial. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Doing something is always better than doing nothing.
It’s not just about cardio either. Any physical activity can be beneficial. Yoga is becoming increasingly popular and offers many physical benefits, including: increased flexibility, increased muscle tone and strength, higher energy levels, weight loss, cardiovascular and respiratory health, among others. Additionally, the breathing and meditation aspects of yoga can help to reduce cortisol, manage stress, increase a sense of well-being, and develop coping skills.
There are other ways to deal with stress on a psychological level. The first is to make an earnest effort to put your daily stressors into perspective. Does it really matter if your daughter wants to wear mismatched clothes to school? Does your co-worker’s negative attitude really need to ruin your day? Taking a step back to think about the grand scheme of life can help you to realize that you’re fortunate to have a healthy daughter who can dress herself and that your co-worker’s personal turmoil at home could be behind his negative comments. Some people find that keeping a gratitude journal helps them to appreciate what is really important in their lives.
Meditation is another great way to balance your mind and reduce cortisol. If meditation seems too intense for you, know that the simple act of taking a few deep breaths will also slow your heart rate, lower blood pressure, and reduce cortisol. Studies show that laughter, having fun, and listening to your favorite music (whatever genre) will also lower cortisol. Finally, maintaining healthy social relationships offers many benefits including increased levels of oxytocin (the “trust” hormone), and reduced cortisol levels.
The advice here is not new: lower your stress, stop worrying so much, put things in perspective, be happy, and exercise more. You’ve heard it all before. But perhaps viewing this advice in light of understanding why zebras don’t get ulcers will help make it more meaningful to you, and help you to take action.
At Innovative Health clinic in Weston, our medical professionals aim to help you feel better and live better. Visit us today to see how we can help.