Chronic Stress and Health

written by Nancy Hepp, MS
Research and Communications Specialist

Nathan Seppa at ScienceNews published a summary of the state of knowledge about the effects of chronic stress on health. The summary draws from research on the effects of stress on heart attacks, stroke, cancer, premature childbirth, type 2 diabetes, telomere length, asthma and even the common cold. Seppa writes:

Chronic stress is the kind that comes from recurring pain, post-traumatic memories, unemployment, family tension, poverty, childhood abuse, caring for a sick spouse or just living in a sketchy neighborhood. Nonstop, low-grade stress contributes directly to physical deterioration, adding to the risk of heart attack, stroke, infection and asthma. Even recovery from cancer becomes harder.

Scientists have now identified many of the biological factors linking stress to these medical problems. The evidence centers on nagging inflammation and genetic twists that steer cells off a healthy course, resulting in immune changes that allow ailments to take hold or worsen.

Read the full article on the ScienceNews site.

New Insights into Chronic Stress, Obesity, and Metabolic Syndrome: Further Support for an Ecological Model of Health and an Integrated Approach to Care

Ted Schettler MD, MPH
CHE Science Director

Summary

In laboratory animal studies a combination of chronic stress and a high-fat, high-sugar diet causes more abdominal fat to accumulate than that diet alone. This effect seems to be mediated, at least in part, by a substance called Neuropeptide Y (NPY) released from sympathetic nerves supplying adipose tissue in response to certain kinds of stress. A new study reports the same phenomenon in chronically stressed women.[1]

Scientists at UC San Francisco studied a group of 61 disease-free women, about half of whom were chronically stressed caring for a spouse or parent with dementia, while the others were relatively stress-free. They found that the stressed women who ate larger amounts of high-fat, high-sugar food were more prone to abdominal obesity and insulin resistance than the low-stress women who ate the same amount of unhealthy food. As in the animal studies, these effects were also associated with NPY levels, which were significantly higher in the group of stressed women. According to lead author Kirstin Aschbacher, “This study suggests that two women who eat the same thing could have different metabolic responses based on their level of stress. There appears to be a stress pathway that works through diet.”

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CHE’s Letter to President-Elect Obama

Dear President-Elect Obama:

We write as Partners in the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, a national and international partnership dedicated to protecting the health of our families and communities. Our 3000 Partners include patient group representatives, health professionals, scientists, government officials, environmental health advocates, and citizens from over 48 states and 45 countries.

We provide a respected nonpartisan forum where informed, thoughtful, civil dialogue on health and the environment takes place. We share your dedication to civility and to listening to each other. By our founding mandate, we are prohibited from speaking for all CHE Partners. But we are permitted to convey the shared understanding that has emerged for many of us from six years of intensive dialogue on the implications of the revolution in environmental health sciences for safeguarding human health.

Mr. President, there has been a revolution in environmental health sciences over the past decade. New technologies, new scientific research, and new paradigms of human health and disease have revolutionized our understanding of human health. Indisputably, we face an epidemic of chronic diseases and disorders. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, asthma, allergies, learning and developmental disabilities, infertility, neurodegenerative diseases, autoimmune diseases, and many other serious diseases and disorders are epidemic in our time.

There are three core insights from the revolution in environmental health sciences. First, most of these diseases are multifactorial in origin. Second, many begin during fetal and early childhood development. And third, most include among their causes exposures to chemical contaminants, particularly those that persist and bioaccumulate. These contaminants interact with genetic inheritance, gene expression, nutrition, stress, socioeconomic status, and much, much more. We call this the complexity model, or ecological model, of human health. You can call it a multifactorial model just as well. Whatever we call it, few scientists disagree with its main outlines.

The implications of these three core insights from the environmental health science revolution are profound. They bear directly on your administration’s plans for health care reform.

Mr. President, you know our health care system is broken. You want to fix it. You have spoken eloquently of the need to prevent disease. The question we face is HOW to prevent the diseases that are bankrupting our health care system and imposing enormous costs on our economy — to say nothing of their cost in human suffering.

Mr. President, the simple truth is that REAL health promotion and disease prevention requires a national commitment to making our inner and outer environments less toxic and stressful — and richer in nutrients and resilience factors. That is what the multifactorial or ecological model of human health ineluctably implies. What this means is that most of the major policy issues you face — the economy, climate change, health care reform, school reform, food and agriculture and much more — are ultimately your real health promotion and disease prevention policies.

You know that the global financial crisis is unquestionably the single greatest immediate stressor on human health. But to what degree do you recognize how important it is that your policies reduce income disparities, which are the single strongest predictor of disparities in health outcomes? If you want to reduce health care costs, the single most powerful lever to do that is to reduce income disparities and enhance buffers against the stresses of income disparities. The MacArthur Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health is a respected source on this point.

Likewise, you know that climate change is a potentially overwhelming stressor on human health. So your green energy program is not only an economic, national security and environmental priority, as you have said. It is also one of your most important health programs. But to what degree do you recognize that green energy must be accompanied by a commitment to green chemistry and green materials?

Mr. President, it is vital to understand that your chemical management policy will have a profound impact on our health. This is the area in which CHE Partners have the greatest expertise. Chemical contaminants are major contributors to many of the chronic disease epidemics we face. Green energy is necessary but not sufficient to sustaining our health. Green energy, green chemistry, and green materials are all vital components of a health policy that recognizes the implications of the environmental health science revolution and the ecological or multifactorial model of human health.

Beyond green energy, green chemistry and green materials, many of us also share a view that your administration needs to be aware of the health threats of new and emerging technologies. There is increasing concern about the health effects of disrupted electromagnetic fields, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. Again and again, we have failed to test new technologies for health and safety adequately before loosing them on our citizens and the world.

We cannot expect you to address all of these questions at once, Mr. President. So let us leave you with this summary. Universal health care will fail — it will be far too expensive to sustain — if it is not accompanied by a commitment to real health promotion and disease prevention. The green economy you are committed to creating can only be truly green if it includes green energy, green chemistry, and green materials. That is the path to a just and sustainable country and a just and sustainable world.

Thank you for listening, Mr. President. We wish you well,

Michael Lerner, PhD
Founding CHE Partner

Steve Heilig, MPH
Director of Public Health and Education, San Francisco Medical Society

Génon K. Jensen, MA
Executive Director, Health & Environment Alliance

Philip R. Lee, MD
Chairman, CHE
Professor and Chancellor Emeritus, University of California, San Francisco
Professor of Medicine Emeritus, Stanford University
Former United States Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services

Elise Miller, MEd
Executive Director, Institute for Children’s Environmental Health

Ted Schettler, MD, MPH
Science Director, Science and Environmental Health Network

Lisette van Vliet, PhD
Toxics Policy Advisor, Health & Environment Alliance