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Health Effects of Chronic Low-Level Stress

Usually when we think of stress, we think of the big "stress bombs." Significant life events that throw us over the edge. These events, such as death of a close family member, moving, change of job, etc, are indeed part of the picture.

But what if we stretch and take a broader view of stress, like this one: "a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation." (Merriam-Webster dictionary) Stress can be more than an emotional roller coaster, then. It's also things like eating too many foods laced with chemical preservatives or the after-effects of an untreated whiplash injury.

With that in mind, let's look to a few health effects of long-term chronic stress and how they play out in real life.

These days, nearly everyone gets it when it comes to the big "stress bombs." You'll hear people say things like this:

  • I spent a year taking care of my mom at home and then she passed away.
  • We lost our house in the flood.
  • We were in a terrible car accident. My neck, shoulders, and back have hurt ever since.
  • I'm a grocery store checker, dental assistant, painter, mail carrier, hairdresser (and more) and do repetitive work in odd positions every day.
  • I just got out of an abusive relationship.
  • I have a high-needs child and an unsupportive spouse.
  • We went through a financial hard time and didn't have money for better quality food, so we did the best we could to keep our bellies full.
  • I'm a farmer and have handled a lot of chemicals.
  • I fell backward and cracked my skull against the pavement.
  • I just went through chemotherapy.

We understand what the big stressors are. Understand that they fall into multiple domains of life, including mental or emotional stress, physical or mechanical stress, nutritional or chemical stress, and more. Understand that they are harmful to our health.

Should a major health event occur, such as a heart attack, cancer diagnosis, or a disc herniation, a perceptive medical doctor may ask if anything unusual has happened within the past year or so. They're most likely asking about major stressors of the type we've just mentioned. The reason for that is clear, even to those in the main stream of allopathic care. Unremitting stress impacts immune function, causes a person to neglect self-care, interferes with hormonal balance, increase muscular tension, and often leads to ill health.

But there are other stressors that we miss. Low-level stressors. Things that go on over time. Things we become so accustomed to that we start to think of them as normal. Sometimes, they are even activity or food choices that we began intentionally, thinking that we were doing the right thing.

Here are some of the things you may hear from a person who has adapted to low-level stressors, perhaps not realizing the potential health consequences:

---->(If you hear yourself saying these things, then your body may be under more stress than you realize!)

  • I was a runner for 40 years.
  • I only drink diet soda. No sugar!
  • I always choose low-fat dairy products. We only use canola oil spray on our cooking pans. Most of the time we just grill out.
  • I had a whiplash injury, but it was so long ago I'm sure it doesn't matter any more.
  • Yeah, I've always had bad posture. It's just how I am.
  • I don't cook.
  • I used to be a professional fighter.
  • I'm a night owl. It's ok, I really don't need that much sleep.
  • I'm a vegetarian who doesn't like vegetables.
  • My doctor says my cholestrol numbers are great! (As long as I stay on the statin drugs; ditto chemical management of elevated blood pressure, blood sugar, mood, or chronic pain.)
  • I've never been very flexible.
  • I swim in a public (heavily chlorinated) pool.
  • If tap water (or conventionally raised / prepared foods from the supermarket), wasn't safe, then they wouldn't give it to us, right?

What's wrong here? Well, a few things. For one, look at what the person IS doing if they're NOT doing something else. A person who "doesn't cook" is most likely eating exclusively prepared foods (in or out of the home), which feature chemical preservatives, MSG, and genetically modified substances. A vegetarian who doesn't eat vegetables is most likely eating lots of starches and sugars. They're also missing out on some major nutrients. These things, in turn, contribute to inflammation, gut dysfunction, heart disease, problems with blood sugar regulation, and degeneration of the joints. (See reading list below.)

An increase in consumption of vegetable oils / decrease in consumption of natural saturated fats has been linked with increased cancer rates, as well as other health issues including problems with blood sugar regulation and mental health issues. (See reading list below.)

Long-term muscle tension, whether from an inadequately treated injury, excessive high-impact athletic practices, dysfunctional posture, or lack of exercise / stretching contributes to accelerated wear and tear of the joints.

Most medications as described do not correct an underlying imbalance, but mask symptoms. Medications have many effects. Some are the effects we hope for in taking them (pain relief, lowered blood pressure) and others are not. Most main-stream medications are toxic at some level, even as they help at another. (Note that some of these medications may be absolutely necessary for certain individuals or conditions until or unless another solution is found, and that I am emphatically not suggesting that anyone stop taking prescribed medications without the agreement of their physician.)

So why is it that many of us appear to get away with doing this stuff? Now if you ask me, that's a great question. A question that I cannot fully answer with any certainty, and that I will continue to consider over time. Most likely, I suspect, it comes from differences in our resilience. A person with a predisposition (genetic or otherwise) to a particular illness, condition or affliction may not be able to get away with practices that their more resilient counterparts can tolerate. That's my guess.

What's a person to do? Awareness and action. Stay open to new sensations, new research, new ideas, new treatments. If you start to notice something bothering you, check it out. If you start to notice new thoughts popping up on a particular subject (processed vegetable oils vs. "lowfat lifestyle" vs. a balanced diet that includes natural saturated fats, for instance), then look into it rather than just rejecting it as a mismatch with something you thought you already had figured out. If you weren't able to find help for an old injury and it's been a while since you last looked, then look again. Ask around. There may be something new on the scene. Once you find a promising new angle, take action. Give it a chance to help, and then see you feel!

Suggested reading:

Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, Dr Catherine and Luke Shanahan

Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health, Gary Taubes

Know Your Fats : The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils and Cholesterol, Mary Enig

Addiction: The Hidden Epidemic: Common Sense Solutions for our #1 Health Problem, Pam Killeen

(These are affiliate links. Thanks for your support.)

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Elizabeth Eckert can help you explore how simple everyday choices create health — or undermine even the best of intentions. With a background that ranges from energy medicine to structural bodywork to developmental psychology, this "Stick-To-It Coach" has the experience to support you in creating the healthiest possible expression of — you!

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Elizabeth Eckert, Healthy Living & Wellness Coach

Elizabeth Eckert, PhD

I enjoy observing human nature and helping people be healthy. I'm author of Word Cures and creator of the WordCures.com healthy living website. (more)

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Note: The information and ideas offered here are personal opinions of a general nature. No opinion posted here constitutes medical advice, either general or personal. If you have a health concern, please consult with your medical doctor and follow his or her advice. The author disclaims responsibility for any misuse or misinterpretation of any opinion posted here.

(c) 2006-09 Elizabeth Eckert

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