Health Step #11: Practice Forgiveness and Gratefulness
Thanksgiving is a great time for Health Step #11. We often begin the holiday season with thoughts of all of the things that need to get done – decorating, cooking, shopping, sending cards, etc. However, we would be better off putting the long to do list on the back burner and contemplate the meaning of the holidays. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Although I am thankful every day for my many blessings, this holiday is a special reminder to give thanks, help others, and clear our heads of negative emotions. With this newsletter, I would like to discuss the physiological effects of toxic or negative emotions, and hopefully give you a reason to nurture positive emotions that will improve your health.
The medical literature has overwhelmingly proven that psychological events alter brain and hormonal activities. The brain, endocrine system, and immune system all have physical contact and they talk to each other.
Our attitudes, emotions and behavior have a positive or negative effect on our immune system and our health, depending on their nature. And without a strong immune system, our physical health will suffer. As you know, almost any disease can invade our bodies if our immune system is suppressed.
Psychology and medicine define stress as anything that causes a stress response. This can vary from person to person depending on their coping skills. Generally speaking, stress is anything that causes a fight-flight response and/or an alarm reaction. In the book, Adrenaline and Stress by Archibald Hart, stress begins in the mind but ends in the body. There is no such thing as stress only being in the mind. In other words, there can be consequences in our physical bodies, because of our negative thoughts or emotions. It is also important realize that there are positive consequences to positive thoughts and emotions.
Even more interesting is the discovery that different attitudes, thoughts and emotions affect different immune cells in different ways, thus affecting how we respond to different antigens or invaders.
It is now well established that specific patterns of thought and behavior are associated with specific diseases. It common place to see a common thread between one specific emotion and one specific disease. For example, in some types of cancer or premenstrual syndrome (PMS), the toxic emotion of bitterness is frequently present. Another example is the association of autoimmune diseases and self-hatred. As we attack ourselves with our own words, thoughts or actions, we see a corresponding conditioned autoimmune response resulting in an autoimmune disease.
So the take away point here is, while we usually cannot control the stressor or the circumstance, we can control how we respond or react. In other words, even though we may have no control over the the words or actions of others that may hurt us, we can control our reaction or response. In fact, we have total control of our response or reaction. We can choose to get angry and suffer the corresponding effect on our body and immune system, or we can choose to take an emotional 180 and seek to do something like forgive. This one act may in fact stop the fight-flight response in its tracks, and the positive emotions associated with the victory over the situation will actually enhance our immune system. Thus, there are conditions where stressors will interfere with our immune system, have no effect on it, or even enhance it.
Again to be perfectly clear, the endocrine system is one of the two pathways or gateways for psychological influences on our health. Stressors such as negative emotions and depression can provoke the release of pituitary and adrenal hormones that have multiple effects on immune function. In addition, these toxic emotions can elevate the release of key stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol from the adrenal glands into the blood leading to multiple detrimental effects on immune function.
Effects on Hormones
First of all, cortisol stimulates the conversion of noradrenaline to adrenaline, resulting in increased levels of adrenaline in the blood. This puts the individual at increased risk for all of the problems related to adrenaline excess. Cortisol also blocks the conversion of T4 thyroid hormone to the more active T3 form, so that individuals under stress may develop symptoms of hypothyroidism (even though the thyroid function tests may appear normal).
Cortisol suppresses antibody production and T-cell activity. This puts the stressed individual at much greater risk for infection. For example, the risk of the common cold has been found to correlate directly with the level of stress one is experiencing.
Protein Breakdown Increase
According to the work of Hans Selye, respectively known as “the father of stress”, protein breakdown increases thirty-eight percent, while the manufacturing of protein drops twenty-eight percent while one is under the influence of stress. Together, this translates into a sixty-six percent drop in protein production. Thus, lean muscle is converted to fat.
Selye claimed that gout is related to stress. In addition, researchers have indicated that rheumatoid arthritis activity correlates with the degree of emotional stress.
Heavy Metal Chelation
Increased levels of stress with elevated levels of cortisol blocks the body’s natural ability to bind and remove toxic heavy metals rendering the stressed individual more vulnerable to heavy metal toxicity and related illness.
Studies have shown that elevated cortisol has the ability to suppress natural killer cells. Giving cortisol to rats with cancer caused their cancer to spread in direct proportion to the amount of cortisol administered.
Clinical studies have documented that elevated levels of cortisol block insulin making it increasingly difficult for diabetics to control their blood sugars when under stress. In a novel study using laboratory animals it was discovered that those animals genetically susceptible to insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus developed the disease more frequently when they were subjected to stress.
Adverse Effect on Sex Hormones, Infertility, Miscarriage
Cortisol stimulates the conversion of DHEA to estrogen in fat cells (especially abdominal fat). Therefore, a woman who is obese and under stress can have blood estrogen levels equivalent to that of a woman in her thirties. This estrogen-dominance picture is consistent with an increased risk of estrogen-related disorders such as cancer, especially of the breast and uterus.
During stress, the sex glands shrink and become less active,” and nursing mothers stop producing milk. In addition, monthly cycles become irregular or may even stop altogether. Likewise, in men who are under stress, sperm cell formation is reduced. In a study reported in the American Journal of Reproductive Immunology, stress increases miscarriages by blocking protective mechanisms (TGF-beta-2) and promoting an increased release of the natural chemicals (TNF-alpha) that can cause miscarriage.
Basic physiology teaches us that dendrites are the branched projections of a neuron that act to conduct the electrochemical stimulation received from other neural cells to the cell body and are critical for recall of stored information. Unfortunately, elevated cortisol “fries” the delicate dendrites in the brain that are necessary for the transfer of this information. Therefore, stress can lead to learning disabilities and memory loss problems similar to what Alzheimer’s disease patients experience.
The Power of Positive Coping Skills
It should now be quite clear that people under stress who know how to deal with it emotionally appear to have more positive immune activity compared to people who have low levels of stress but with poor mental habits. Feelings of pleasure and well-being indicate that you are thriving, and your immune
system responds by working at peak efficiency so that you can fight disease and remain healthy. The feeling of euphoria that follows successfully dealing with a challenge actually energizes your immune system. Stress dealt with in this manner actually helps you to maintain good health.
Feelings of Hopelessness or Helplessness
The opposite of feeling peace and well-being is hopelessness or feeling helpless. Helplessness even slows the healing of wounds. Kiecolt-Glaser compared the rate of healing of wounds of long-term caregivers with normal controls. The caregivers were people who had spent years of their lives caring for relatives with Alzheimer’s. The feeling of helplessness resulting from their situation showed its effects in significantly slower healing of their wounds. After six weeks fifty-five percent of the wounds of the control subjects were healed, versus only seventeen percent for the caregivers.
How large are the effects? One study says that depression is as dangerous to our health as “hypertension, cigarette smoking, hyperlipidemia, obesity, and diabetes”. A number of well-controlled prospective studies have linked depressive symptoms with coronary heart disease (con), the leading cause of death in the United States. For example, a 13-year prospective study suggested that individuals with major depression had a 4.5-times greater risk of a heart attack, compared with those with no history of depression.
Not surprisingly, patients who had pre-existing cardiovascular disease also had poorer outcomes if they were depressed (Glassman 1998); mortality among patients who had suffered a heart attack was four times higher among the depressed than the nondepressed (Frasure-Smith 1993). Dr. Nichols, a diabetic researcher with Portland, Oregon based Kaiser Permanente Center of Health Research shows that depression is found twice as often in people who are diabetics and has even stated that it is his opinion that depression may even be a primary cause of diabetes. Depression also has been found to increase the risk of developing a disability over the next six years by seventy-three percent (Penninx 1999). Thus, the increased disease and death risk associated with the negative emotion of depression is substantial.
Anxiety, Worry, and Fear
Anxiety has adverse effects particularly in the cardiovascular system, where it plays a role in the development of coronary heart disease (CHO) and contributes to poorer prognosis after coronary events.
People with phobic or panic-like anxiety had three times the risk of fatal CHD. In a study conducted by Kawachi from the Normative Aging Study, higher levels of anxiety were associated with almost double the risk of fatal CHD . Similarly, men in the “Health Professionals Follow-up Study” who reported the highest levels of anxiety had more than double the risk for fatal CHD and non-fatal heart attacks.
Chronic anger and hostility also negatively impact health. One nine-year study found that men high in hostility had more than twice the risk of cardiovascular mortality compared with men low in hostility (Everson 1997). Similarly, a large study of employees found that hostility predicted the total number of long-term medically certified absences over a four-year period among men (Vahtera 1997). Indeed, a rigorous meta-analysis concluded that hostility was a robust risk factor for CUD, as well as for all mortality.
Marriage and Divorce: The 34% Finding
A clinical trial conducted by Ohio State University’s J.K.Kiecolt-Glaser and published in the Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology involved taking blood samples of married couples to test stress factors at the beginning of the study, then examining them relative to marital status ten years later. They found that couples who divorced at ten years had already displayed a thirty-four percent higher rate of the stress hormone norepinephrine at the beginning of the study than couples who stayed married.
The fact that the stress hormones were higher in the conflicted couples at the beginning of the study, even when they weren’t arguing, suggests a chronic pattern of stress in their lives. “These findings show us in a microcosm how close personal relationships can get translated into health outcomes. They show that marital quality is as good a predictor of subsequent health as any of the usual major prognostic indicators” (Kiecolt-Glaser 1987).
“Excerpts of this article compliments of Ron Grisanti, DC, Functional Medicine University.”
RECIPE OF THE MONTH
Fennel, Beet and Citrus Salad
Ingredients: 1 Fennel bulb cut into thin shreds
1 roasted beet cut into thin slices
Segments of 1 orange
Squeeze the rest of the juice from the pulp left over from cutting the orange out into a measuring cup. Whisk in olive oil, Dijon mustard, honey and salt to taste. Toss the ingredients of the measuring cup into the fennel, beet and orange mixture. Toss and let sit before serving.
This is a nice light salad that goes nicely with Thanksgiving dinner.
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Family Chiropractic & Nutrition
Barbara Mitchem, DC, ACN, CFMP
Applied Clinical Nutritionist
Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner
109 Shult Dr., Ste. 208, Columbus, TX 78934