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  Stress and the Stress Response

Allostasis and the Good Stress Response

This is supplemental information for this topic marked by the little computer icon in the book, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and the MindBodySpirit Connection, by William B. Salt II, M.D. and Neil F Neimark, M.D. (Columbus: Parkview Publishing, 2002). Click here to learn more about the book and/or to purchase it.

There is an important association of "stress" and the functional gastrointestinal syndromes, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Our book, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and the MindBodySpirit Connection explores this important link. But, what is stress? Is stress good, bad, or both? How often do we experience stress? Are we always conscious of stress?

A stressor is any situation that represents an actual or a perceived threat to the balance (homeostasis) of an organism. We may or may not be conscious or aware of a stressor and our response to it. Evolution has ensured that all animals and humans possess the adaptive capacity to respond to stressors in order to maximize chances for surviving the stressor. So in this way, the stress response is good stress.

Another way of saying this is that The MindBodySpirit Connection is in a constant state of maintaining an internal balance that is called "homeostasis." When we are challenged, subjected to change, or exposed to stressors – in essence, when we are threatened – the Connection generates internal chemicals and stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenalin, whether we are aware of it or not. This internal response helps us cope with the situation and survive the immediate challenge. This is "good stress." This active response also helps the body to re-establish balance or homeostasis.

Dr. Bruce McEwen from Rockefeller University in New York calls this active and adaptive process "allostasis." The word, "allostasis" is derived from Greek with "allo" meaning variable and "stasis" meaning stability. The term literally means, "achieving stability through change." This constant internal response is critical in re-establishing balance and homeostasis. It is a dynamic process. This is good stress.

You can further explore Dr. McEwen’s important concepts regarding stress and the stress response:

This landmark review of the human stress literature in the world’s most prestigious medical journal explains the key concept of the protective and damaging effects of the response of the MindBodySpirit Connection to stress. There are many mechanisms, but among the most prominent are the manifestations of physiological stress responses as a result of living and working conditions, inter-personal conflict, as well as the sense of control of one’s environment and optimism/pessimism toward the future. "Allostatic load" refers to the cost of adaptation to a stressful environment, which elicits repeated and sometimes prolonged adaptive responses ("allostasis") that preserve homeostasis in the short run but can cause wear- and-tear on the body and brain. Functional symptoms and syndromes, decreased cognitive function during aging, abdominal obesity, increased risk for hypertension and cardiovascular disease, insulin-dependent diabetes and decreased immune responses are all manifestations of allostatic load.

We have powerful ways of modulating the harmful output of the stress response systems that include belief systems and behaviors. An important quote attributed to Dr. McEwen is, "We must also remember that the biggest problems for the human race in the future are those associated with our own behavior and misbehavior and the impact of the social and physical environment on our bodies and brains."

  • Dr. McEwen has written a new book with Elizabeth N. Lasley entitled, The End of Stress as We Know It, which is published by Joseph Henry Press (2002). Click here to learn more about this book.

Allostatic Load and the Bad Stress Response

There is an important association of “stress” and functional medically unexplained symptoms and syndromes. Unfortunately, the good stress response can turn bad, and a chronic stress response can be too much of a good thing! The way our bodies work presents us with a paradox: what can protect can also damage.

This "bad stress" is what stress researcher, Dr. McEwen calls "allostatic load." This term refers to a disturbance in the internal response system, balance, and homeostasis. For example, the stress response chemicals and hormones may not be turned off appropriately or they become active when they should not be, such as when you are home after a long day’s work and still feeling stressed out. The allostatic load is the damaging effect of these internal stress mediators. It's the price the body has to pay for either doing its job less efficiently or simply being overwhelmed by too many challenges.

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