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Is your illness due to stress?


What’s STRESS got to do with it?!?!

stress pic

Stress is being blamed for a lot of things now a day. Heck, even my vet told us that the cause of our cat’s bladder infection was probably due to stress. How can that be? My cat is the most layback part of our family. His biggest stress is deciding when to attack our dog. If anything it is our dog that should be the one who is stressed. So why are his illness and so many other illnesses being blamed on stress?

What is stress?

The best medically related definition of stress that I found is from Medicinenet which states stress is: “a physical, mental or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure)”.

I suspect most people when they think of stress think of the emotional symptoms of having stress. This includes; feeling overwhelmed, worried, frustrated, easily agitated, or depressed. Stress can indeed cause these symptoms, but more concerning is that stress can actually cause problems to your physical health.

What happens to the body under times of stress?

When the body senses a harmful situation it will release some chemicals that cause a chain of events that trigger the “fight or flight” response. The “fight or flight” response was an evolutional development to keep the body safe from harm. When experiencing this response to a stress, your body has a physical response, which includes; increasing your heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and muscle tension. This stress response is designed to be a protective measure, which results in your body to either ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ from the harmful situation. This is an appropriate response when the harmful situation is life threating such as a bear chasing after you.

The problem lies in the fact that our bodies are unable to tell the difference between a life threating situations versus one that is just perceived as harmful. Our bodies produce the same physiological response to a life-threating event such as seeing a bear as it does to the stress that can occur from day to day hassles such as stress from work or from the drive during rush hour traffic.

When the body experiences this level of stress regularly it results in the release of the stress hormone cortisol. This causes a chain of events including the release of chemicals that result in increased inflammation. This inflammation then is believed to be one of the primary causes of disease and physical dysfunction.

What are some of the physical symptoms of stress?

The physical symptoms of stress can be difficulty sleeping, fatigue, brain fog, upset stomach, diarrhea, insomnia, increase pain and headaches. Stress is the most common reason I hear as to why people’s migraines have worsened.

Not only can stress cause physical symptoms but it can also cause medical diseases. Inflammation that associated with this chronic levels of stress is believed to be the cause of many of the chronic diseases. These diseases include high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, autoimmune disorders, asthma, arthritis, some types of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

So when you doctor tells you that your symptoms or disease is due to stress, believe it. The majority of the time I feel like the patient and their family thinks that I am just calling them crazy. But this is not the case. I am not saying that they are not having symptoms, nor am I saying that they are making up or causing their symptoms because they are depressed. I am actually saying that the ‘Stress’ may actually be the cause of their symptoms.

Why are some people more likely to get migraines?

Genetic and environmental factors that increase the risk of migraine headaches

Anyone can have a migraine headache, however, some people just have a higher risk compared to others. The reason why some people are more likely to get migraines is based on a combination of genetic and environmental factors. A simple way I explain it is by describing everyone’s risk to having a migraine based on different sizes drinking cups. The larger the cup, the more it takes to fill the cup and thus the harder it is to get a migraine.

The cup size is determined by genetic factors. It is well known that migraine headaches have a very strong genetic component. Such that, 70% of people who have migraine headaches have a 1st-degree relative who also suffers from migraine headaches. This genetic predisposition is believed to be due to a mitochondrial dysfunction that results in a hyper-excitable or sensitive brain. Thus, in people who have a family history, it does not require as many triggers to cause them to have a migraine. Or with the cup analogy, they have a smaller cup, to begin with, thus they do not need as many triggers to push them over to the point of having a migraine.

The thing that ‘fills your cup’ is the environmental risk factors or triggers. Common triggers include hormonal changes, stress, changes in sleep patterns, certain foods (MSG, red wine, sulfates), strong odors, certain medication, and changes in weather patterns. Typically it requires a combination of these triggers, or enough to fill the cup to cause a migraine.

Unfortunately, what I am seeing, as a headache specialist, is that more people are experiencing more frequent headaches. They describe it to me as if they always feel on the edge of having a migraine, and things that typically would not trigger a migraine now are. I like to describe this as ‘the cup is already half full’ so it takes less ‘water’ or triggers to fill the cup and cause a migraine. I believe this is due to increased inflammation in our bodies.

Things that increase inflammation in our bodies are very similar to what triggers a migraine in the first place along with some that you would not expect to see. Common causes of this increase inflammation include chronic stress, obesity, narcotic pain medications, food allergies and sensitivities (gluten, dairy, eggs), processed foods, sugars, refined carbohydrates, and omega 6 fatty acids in vegetable oils. Exposures to any of these factors over time can cause an increase in the inflammation in the brain that then results in more frequent migraines.

So to decrease your risk for migraine headaches you need to limit the triggers and things that can cause inflammation. I typically make these recommendations to my patients.

  1. Decrease stress, if unable to decrease stress than at least find healthy ways to deal with it such as regular exercise.
  2. Get off processed foods, and stop using artificial sweetener,
  3. Stop using vegetable oils and use more olive oils and coconut oils to cook with
  4. Consider eating a low carbohydrate, high fat ketogenic diet.

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