Chronic Stress Causes Cancer

Chronic Stress Causes Cancer

Persistent stress increases the risk of both cancer and heart disease significantly. The reason is simple: stress refocuses the immune system on immediate threats at the expense of long term ones.

Some short-term stress may actually be good, as long as the cause of the stress does no harm. Scary movies or roller-coasters would be good examples as would be many competitive sports. Chronic stress is a different matter.

The body does not seem to be well evolved to deal with chronic stress. We suppose that chronic stress would occur in the hunter-gatherer world, but perhaps it was either resolved or fatal. It seems that our only evolved behavior for dealing with chronic stress are our spiritual, even mystical, interpretations of the world around us. Whatever that complex case, modern civilization seems to be well evolved to dish it out. Any stress will force immediate physiological changes in the body, but chronic stress will hold it there, and this is not good.

Some of the principal hormones associated with stress are cortisol and adrenalin. Both of these are manufactured by the adrenal glands, which are perched, squatter-like, atop the kidneys.

A regular morning cortisol measurement greater than 14 μg/dl could indicate chronic stress, a cause for serious concern. But cortisol is fast acting, and an elevated level could be due to many other things. Something stressful right before the blood draw, an argument over the price, say, or even the draw itself, might trigger it. A high level could also be due to internal infection, cancer or heart disease.

If you don’t think any of these were factors, cortisol greater than 14 indicates a need for some sort of stress reduction activity. Cortisol is quite a volatile hormone, though, so some wild numbers will naturally occur. Your own sense of stress may be a more accurate measure. If in doubt, consider a second measurement or another surrogate like your resting heart rate under different conditions. In fact, the more data points you have for cortisol the more likely you are to see the true underlying pattern, thus avoiding the transient and misleading extremes.

Even if your cortisol is less than 14, we still encourage you to consider a stress reduction activity. There appear to be many other significant health benefits that we are unable to directly measure. One NIH-funded study showed a 50% reduction in cancer and a 30% reduction in cardiac events following a stress management program. This is a lot of reduction. It is unlikely these results can be attributed to lower cortisol alone, but we are certainly very impressed with the results.

No one wants to be stressed out, and we would all like a 50% reduction in cancer and a 30% reduction in heart events, so this is a win-win of major significance.

Why does high chronic stress do damage?

Chronic stress carries with it a chronically high level of cortisol. Cortisol is “designed” to be one of the flight-or-fight hormones. It prepares the body for such moments by increasing available energy—blood glucose. It shuts down functions not immediately needed, like cell renewal and repair, and patrolling for cancer cells. It instead preps the immune system to deal with possible wounds.

This stress response is profound and intense, and is “designed” to prepare us for life-or-
death situations. We are pushed
 to the edge of our ability and acuity. In addition to cortisol, several other hormones are raised in preparation, but we cannot sustain this intensity long without physiological damage.

But, of course, most situations today are not life threatening, and the body’s interpretation is no longer appropriate. It could be that the body simply isn’t taking any chances, but the consequences are not anything we want.

Besides curtailing important immune system functions, elevated cortisol also elevates blood sugar levels, and this will cause fat to be stored, will aggravate atherosclerosis, and all the other high-blood-sugar problems. Impaired cellular repair means aging and loss of vigor.

One of the first casualties of prolonged stress is sleep duration and quality. If you are not awakening feeling refreshed, stress is a very likely culprit. Poor sleep as a consequence of inadequately managed stress is one of the paths that lead to dementia.

Lowered immune system function means cancer, and indeed, cancer is the most prominent problem associated with chronic stress. Cancer is a tug of war between your immune system and malfunctioning cells. If at all possible, get the cortisol down to a reasonable level.

Reducing your cortisol level

Meditate. This isn’t at all hard and can be very effective. It need occupy no more than 10 minutes per day. There is no need to seek a saffron-robed guru atop the Himalayas. Any quiet place will do. We will post a step-by-step soon.

Remove the stressor. Not always easy, of course. A boss or partner that is causing stress can perhaps be reasoned with, especially if the medical consequences are pointed out. And don’t hesitate to shoot that saber toothed tiger in the backyard.

Pills. If stress cannot be gotten under control, consider medications. Several are quite effective with little in the way of side-effects for most.

Exercise. Do not underestimate the value of good old exercise. This would be a different type than an intense workout to improve HDL or to build muscle mass. Even a long walk holding your wife or husband’s hand can work.




  2 comments for “Chronic Stress Causes Cancer

  1. Jim
    November 17, 2017 at 7:15 am


    Regarding the Exercise comment in the post:

    Are you saying that when stressed doing something like a high intensity interval workout should be avoided? I know that from my experience, when workload and stress builds, I feel better if I can build in some HIIT. I know that using how I feel is not necessarily a good measure to rely upon, but it does seem to improve my mood.

    • November 21, 2017 at 9:35 am

      Jim, the beautiful thing about HIIT is the stress while real is short enough that it actually has a nice subsequent drop in stress hormone levels. No, we are not saying avoid all stress; merely prolonged submaximal stress; like worrying all the time, or tossing and turning the night away.

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