Dr Terry Wahls has had an incredible life full of ups and downs - Wahls was diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, which confined her to a tilt-recline wheelchair for four years. This didn't stop Terry, instead, through dietary changes and solid dedication to the latest medical research this incredible woman was riding bikes and had reversed many of the chronic symptoms she was suffering from. I'm so thrilled to share this guest post by Terry Wahls on the significance of stress on disease.
Stress is something I see manifest into illness consistently with clients, and in my own life. I have also seen the changes that can happen when people choose to actively address and reduce stress in their lives. So without further ado, I'll let Dr Terry Wahls explain why stress and disease are NOT mutually exclusive.
Stress, both physical and emotional, is necessary for life. Growing up on a farm gave me excellent bone density because of all the stress on my bones from manual labour. When humans enter a weightless environment, with no gravity pulling on bones and muscles, our bodies begin to lose strength and shrink. Likewise, our brains need the stress of learning and adapting to change in order to produce the hormones (nerve growth factor) that nurture brain cells and direct them to make new connections. Without the stress of learning, our brains make less nerve growth factor and begin the process of atrophying.
Stress, however, is meant to be acute, not chronic. Chronic high stress without that important recovery period is maladaptive, damaging the body and brain. After stress, our bodies are supposed to rapidly metabolise (process and eliminate) the stress hormones circulating through the system so we are back to a safe state of “idle”. When our adrenals are constantly putting out stress hormones, however, we can’t get back to that important safe state.
How does the stress response work?
The stress response is complex, but one way to look at it is through the lens of the autonomic nervous system. This is the set of nerves that connect brain to body and that help us identify whether we feel safe or unsafe at any given moment. It governs all the things that happen in your body automatically, like digestion, breathing, and the beating of your heart.
When you are safe and all is well, the parasympathetic system is in charge. Your cells know they are safe and can focus on doing the work of living. That means digesting food, making hormones, removing toxins, and building proteins to create new cells, support your immune cells, repair damage, and grow.
When you are not safe, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, and everything changes. The work of living comes to a screeching halt. Your cells switch gears, priming the body for only two things: either to run away or to fight an attacker.
How does the body change in fight or flight mode?
When the sympathetic nervous system switches on, two glands – the adrenals and the thyroid – change tactics. You can think of them as the tortoise and the hare. The adrenal glands are the hare. They respond rapidly to a threat, immediately revving up the metabolism and secreting stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. These make your heart speed up, enable your eyes to see more acutely, and divert blood from your bowels to your muscles so you can run faster and longer. They also make your blood sugar and insulin levels increase so you have more energy with which to run. That’s all very effective – for a short time. Once the threat has passed, our bodies quickly metabolise or break down the stress hormones and we go back to a safe state, digesting our food and conducting the chemistry of life normally.
Meanwhile, the thyroid has a longer view. It adjusts the metabolism according to what the adrenals are doing. If there are a lot of threats, the metabolism may stay idling at a higher speed, just to make sure the engine is ready to go whenever necessary.
How does chronic stress impact your health?
If we don’t get that all-important recovery period, over time this exhausts the adrenal glands and you begin to develop adrenal fatigue. Your body will keep doing the best it can to keep your metabolism running. When the adrenals can’t keep you energised, your thyroid will pick up the baton to keep your energy and metabolism up; but when your thyroid can’t keep up with your continual stress, it, too, will begin to fail. By that time you are likely experiencing deep fatigue.
When your cells are continually bathed in high levels of stress hormones, there are many health repercussions.
Chronic stress can damage the lining of the blood vessels throughout the body, including the ones in your brain and in your heart, and the lining of your gut, causing leaky vessels, a leaky brain, and a leaky gut, which puts you at greater risk for developing or worsening your autoimmune problems.
Stress can lead to system-wide inflammation by causing an increasingly common and dangerous condition called insulin resistance. Insulin resistance means
A very real risk of diabetes
Higher rates of brain problems like apoptosis (brain cell death)
More damage to nerves
More amyloid protein tangles typical of Alzheimer’s dementia
Possible development of atherosclerosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, hirsutism (facial hair on women), erectile dysfunction, and low testosterone in men.
How can you reduce stress?
There are many ways of reducing stress, so choose the activities you enjoy the most. Here are some ideas, and remember my prescription: Two per day!
Dr Terry Wahls is speaking live at two events in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia:
Saturday, April 21 – Melbourne Plenary, Melbourne Convention Center
Saturday, May 5 – Sydney, Cockle Bay Room, ICC Sydney
Can’t travel? You can still attend!
Her talk will also be available to purchase via live stream if you’re not able to make it in person.
For full event details, head to the website here!