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Defusing Stress

by Dr. Laura Polak, D.C.

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PEACE. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.

— unknown

So what does it mean to have peace in our day-to-day lives? As Americans most of us are under a constant barrage of different stressors. So how can we remain calm amongst all of the external and internal noise of our lives? First let's take an educated look at what effect a lack of peace can cause on our day-to-day lives.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, 75%-90% of all doctor and hospital visits are linked to stress-related ailments and stress-related disorders. Why? Caroline Myss and Norman Shealy created this concise table that shows the biochemical shifts that occur when the body is under stress:


Brain reacts to stress

  1. Brain releases ACTH (stimulate adrenal glands)
  2. Beta-Endorphin (natural narcotic)
  3. Prostaglandin E1 (natural inflammatory)
  4. Serotonin (speeds up ability of nerve cells to communicate)
  5. Adrenal glands release Epinephrine (Adrenalin) and Cortisol
  6. Sympathetic Nervous System releases Norepinephrine
  7. Liver releases stored sugar (provides energy to fight or flee)

Result: Blood pressure and pulse go up

At first glance these words and charts can be intimidating, but understanding the basics of the bio-chemistry of these hormones can give you a great insight into how stress can lead to dysfunction in your system, and what to do about it.

At the top of the chain is the brain. Your thoughts, emotions and biology affect all of the following bio-chemical steps.

When the mind and body perceive a challenge, they release the following cascade to protect and ready themselves. This is known as the fight or flight response. Beta-endorphin (step 2) along with epinephrine and norepinephrine (steps 5 and 6) are the hormones responsible for decreasing your ability to feel pain and remain capable of doing harrowing acts of courage (such as the old lady who lifts a car to rescue the kitten).

Prostaglandin E1 (step 3) is often overlooked in this cascade of hormones but is highly significant because of its effect: telling your immune system to ready itself for attack. Serotonin is notorious for its role in anti-depressants and emotion and is an important chemical messenger in relaying communication in the nervous system. Adrenalin is a much sought after hormone these days with extreme sports, and action movies all geared at releasing this hormone. Often because we are in a state of chronic stress we seek ever-increasing challenging events to feel the affects of adrenalin.

Cortisol is the main hormone secreted from the adrenal glands, which lie near the kidneys. It's main function is to provide resistance to a variety of stresses and maintain the activity of a variety of enzyme systems. All of this requires energy, which is supplied by the liver releasing increasing glucose into the circulating blood.

All of this is a healthy and natural response to prepare you to face a hard situation. Problems occur when the system does not re-set itself. If we take a look at any one of these steps, chronic stress — the inability of the system to go back to resting or baseline levels of these chemicals — can alter our health and activate dis-ease.

Effects of chronic stress

Lets go back to step 3. Prostaglandin E1 is on of the hormones involved in activating your immune system to a stressed area. For instance when you cut your finger, white blood cells are sent to the area to fight infection. This increase in cells to the area causes a temporary inflammation as the immune cells attack the infection. When the infection is gone so are the "activated" immune cells and the swelling.

Chronic release of prostaglandin E1 can tax your reserves for future challenges. In one study at Harvard Medical School, pediatricians studied 16 families containing 100 people over a one-year period. They found that both streptococcal illness and other respiratory diseases were four times more common after periods the family identified as stressful. Furthermore the New England Journal of Medicine reported in 1998 that increased sympathetic nervous system activity decreases cellular immunity as well as activating immune cells, which can migrate to different parts of the body and can worsen autoimmune and allergic conditions (such as Crohn's disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and fibromyalgia, to name a few).

Lets go to the end of the chain: the increase of glucose from the liver to the blood stream. An increase in blood glucose can cause a myriad of dysfunctions in the metabolic and cardiovascular systems, such as increase the risk of diabetes, increased rate of obesity, an increased risk or coronary heart disease, elevated blood pressure, and increased rate of arteriosclerosis and heart attacks.

How about interruption at step 5? The hippocampus (part of the brain) has high levels of cortisol receptors, thus chronic stress can impair function to this part of the brain casing and cause neuronal atrophy and destruction of neurons (most medical professionals say there is no regeneration of neurons), decreased short-term memory, and decreased contextual memory. Additionally, cortisol functions to help regulate other hormones so constant activation can inhibit the regulation of other endocrine functions.

As you can see chronic activation affects all these areas and can cause problems at any one area. Any of these steps can cause serious problems when chronically activated because the body is taxed of its normal reserves.

What can you do?

Go back to the top of the chain: the brain. You can make decisions that help eliminate or decrease the stress response in your life by once again paying attention to the physical, emotional, and chemical components of your health.

Physical stressors include accidents, physical inactivity, and changes in temperature. Chemical stressors include sugar, high fat foods, cigarettes, alcohol, and toxic work or environment. Emotional stressors include fear, anger, guilt, depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

As we approach the holidays, many of us overload on all aspects of our stress capacity, stopping our regular exercise regimen, eating poorly, and navigating family get-togethers or loneliness. Come up with a plan for how you can circumvent illness by planning ahead.

Make sure you are able to identify when your stress levels are high, and have some ways of interrupting the process. An increased heart rate, sweat, tense muscles, irritability, moodiness and dilated pupils are clear signs of fight or flight and an increased stress response.

When you notice these signs stop what you're doing and check in with yourself for at least five minutes. Have you eaten lately? Ways to re-set the system are going for a brisk walk, taking a few deep breaths, visualizing yourself somewhere refreshing, relaxing tight muscles, and shifting your perception to a different space. This does not have to be a long task. Just check in and re-set every hour until you get the hang of it and feel some shift in your overall tension pattern.

Sometimes these patterns are so ingrained or deep we are unable to notice, find, or shift these patterns on our own. This is a good time to seek the help of a professional. You might consider Network Spinal Analysis, hypnotherapy, yoga, counseling, massage, acupuncture, meditation classes, and nutritional counseling. These are all good places to start.

— © Dr. Laura Polak, D.C.

Dr. Laura Polak, D.C. is a chiropractor who specializes in Network Spinal Analysis at The Radiant Health Center in Sebastopol, California. Contact her at,, or call (707) 217-8236.