Are you living on adrenalin?

Don't ignore the signs

Adrenalin overload can cause everything from heart disease and obesity to depression - so don't ignore your chronic state of stress, writes Stephanie Osfield.

Ever wondered how little stress it takes before your body switches into high anxiety mode? In his lab at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, Professor Murray Esler triggered a measurable spike in stress simply by giving people challenging maths tasks to complete within a set time frame, triggering increased blood pressure, heart rate and release of certain stress hormones from the nerves and the heart.

“In the heart, stress can also increase inflammatory chemicals that inflame fat deposits and plaques on the blood vessel walls, increasing the risk of heart disease,” says Dr Craig Hassed, a senior lecturer at Monash University’s Department of General Practice. “That same inflammation can increase your risk of developing or aggravating conditions like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.”

The take-home message? Stress should never be trivialised or ignored.

Are you living on adrenalin?
We’ve all suffered physical fallout from stress such as perspiration, muscle tension, shallow breathing and upset stomach. These symptoms usually go hand in hand with emotional overwhelm (cue the teariness, grumpy outbursts or desire to scream to release the pressure).

Blame it on the ‘fight or flight’ response – a hangover from our cavemen days when we needed to be ready to wrestle a sabre-toothed tiger at a femtosecond. The modern equivalents? You almost hit the car in front or lose all the data on your mobile phone. Within seconds, your brain sends a signal of ‘danger’, which activates the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-axis). This is a feedback loop between your brain and other organs, such as the kidneys, that causes a cascade of hormones including adrenalin, cortisol and androgens, (steroid hormones). In excess, they can play havoc with your health.

Stressful thinking patterns

Your HPA axis can be triggered by stressful thinking patterns such as catastrophising, exaggerating and focusing on the negatives in life. In addition, many lifestyle habits ramp up stress chemicals, particularly cortisol, so minimise the triggers.

“Research suggests that sugar, caffeine and alcohol prolong the effect of cortisol, an adrenal hormone that prevents fat loss, increases muscle loss and contributes to pain and inflammation,” says Teresa Mitchell-Paterson, a senior lecturer in natural therapies at the Australasian College of Natural Therapies.

Making sure you get enough zed’s is pivotal. Studies at the University of Chicago have shown that sleep loss can also increase cortisol levels and appetite. That’s good reason to avoid bright computer screens in the evening.

“The bright computer light can interfere with your levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps promote sleep onset at night,” says Siobhan Banks, a research fellow at the Centre for Sleep Research at the University of South Australia.

- Stephanie Osfield

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