Robert Zapolsky, professor of neurology at Stanford University, has some thoughts on stress, particularly chronic stress. Zapolsky maintains that Zebras don’t get ulcers because in response to a stressful situation zebras either die after 3 minutes of screaming in terror or escape to freedom if fate should smile on them. Humans on the other hand, have what is called an “anticipatory stress response.” Homeostasis is what we aim for, which means that we are functioning in a state of equilibrium or balance. In the case of the zebra, the lion-predator would be the key to disrupting the homeostatic balance in the internal and external environment of the zebra. For the human however, and this is the clincher, even the expectation of being thrown out of homeostatic balance will cause that very fear to manifest and disrupt our homeostatic state causing illness. What this translates to is that if we expect to get sick, or expect bad things to happen, they will.
Chronic stressful situations cause a disruption in our homeostatic health. Yes, even our heart knows when there is a disruption occurring and it is very proficient at making the rest of the body aware of its insights. It has been said that the heart has a brain of sorts, being that it is made up of more neural cells than muscle cells. These nerve ganglia are linked to every organ in the body. So can emotions such as stress effect the way we feel physically? Absolutely. Samuel Johnson once said, “a man’s knowing he’s to be hung in a fortnight concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Stress is a fact of life and can be a motivator. How many of us work best under pressure and cram for exams, or work all night to complete projects that we’ve had plenty of time to complete. Others put themselves willingly into situations of stress because they love the thrill of it-consider mountain climbers, bungee jumpers, sky divers.
Chronic stress is another story. Chronic stress fools our body into believing it must respond in a manner similar to that of a major illness invading the body. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help to reduce the effects of stress by monitoring and altering the body’s response to stress. Ideally one could alter the stressful situation or remove oneself from the stress but this is not always possible and not always the best solution to the problem. Studies have shown that acupuncture works in part to activate the neurotransmitters such as serotonin and stimulates the release of endorphins with their morphine like action. Acupuncture also acts to clear the obstructions in the channels that contribute to disharmony in the body. Qi gong or Tai qi are other activities that help to direct the flow of qi within the body, balancing the yin and yang and ultimately strengthening the circulation of blood. The result is an improvement in the physical, emotional and mental states of the body. It has been shown that exercise in general can mobilize the body’s natural killer cells to help keep the immune system strong. Exercise also releases endorphins, which help with depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. Foods can also affect the brain’s neurotransmitters. Bananas and turkey for example, contribute to increases in the levels of serotonin, which helps to make us feel good. Omega 3 rich foods and supplements also help to keep serotonin levels at an optimum level.