Our stress responses are common companions in our modern lives. Most of us wear them like heavy coats to keep us warm and dry. They can get a bit heavy after a while, but our ‘coats’ need not be black. Nor do we need to wear them every day.

Not all stress is damaging

Intermittent or low-level exposure to stressors can sometimes make us stronger: this is known as hormesis.  Obvious examples are the stresses and strains of exercise and intellectually challenging activities. By promoting stress resistance, the hormetic effects of mild, repetitive stress may have a beneficial impact on our longevity. For example:

  • heat stress (such as that induced by jumping into a hot Jacuzzi every day)
  • cold stress (such as the stress of taking a cold shower)
  • periodic partial fasting (such as consuming 80% of our usual kj intake one day per week)
  • regular physical activity
  • acupuncture

These trigger the release of natural molecules, called hormetins, that stimulate our stress response pathways and help them to adapt. Some examples of hormetins include celasterols and paeoniflorin, present in some medicinal herbs; the isothocyanates in broccoli; allicin, found in garlic; and curcumin, in turmeric.  Each of these hormetins has been shown to have a range of biological effects, depending on the dosage. In each case, too much exposure is damaging (e.g. extreme cold stress results in hypothermia), but just enough can make us more resilient.

Why is stress killing us?

  • Heart attacks and strokes – up to a third of all heart attacks may be attributable to chronic stress.
  • Infections and cancer – when we are stressed, we seem to pick up every bug going around. These stressful times are also when cold sores and shingles tend to raise their ugly heads. Chronically stressed individuals are at higher risk of some cancers and have worse survival rates.
  • Cognitive decline – prolonged stress can actually cause some areas of our brains to shrink. In susceptible individuals, chronic stress can trigger depression and other mental illness.
  • Sexual dysfunction, including erectile dysfunction and difficulty in maintaining sexual arousal, are common complications of stress.
  • Impaired intestinal function – diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel, ulcers, etc.

Last Reviewed 02/Mar/2014

 

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Merlin Thomas is a physician and a scientist. His research laboratory is at the JDRF/ Danielle Alberti Memorial Centre for the study of Diabetes Complications at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne.
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