Stressed out! The powerful biology of stress

A program from All in the Mind, presented by Natasha Mitchell, ABC Radio National and Radio Australia.

Listen to podcast below the text, which is part of the transcript.

Natasha Mitchell: It’s true, we live in stressful times… The so called subprime mortgage crisis has sent world stock markets into a spin …

Domestic violence is on the rise, depression is on the rise, anxiety is on the rise, alcohol and drug use are on the rise, so the stress is starting to take its toll …

Tonight the biggest mortgage meltdown …

The thing that makes people most stressed out is when they don’t feel like they have any control.

Bruce McEwen: The medical community has begun to accept the notion that for cardiovascular disease, for depression, for certain disorders, that there is a very clear inescapable link with stress.

We’re increasingly aware of the important role that inflammation plays.

Inflammation is part of everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease, to arthritis, to diabetes, to cardiovascular disease. you name it.

And psychological stress elevates the inflammatory cytokines, just as an overload of calories, just as you know many of these things.

Tom Boyce: There is a kind of biological embedding if you will, a biological fingerprint that is left by experiences of growing up in disadvantage, and there are both short term changes in the biology of children who are exposed to those kinds of settings, but there appears to be longer term changes as well.

They affect their development and may potentially affect things as distant as when they die, the chronic diseases they develop over the course of their adult life, that their mental health over the years of their adult life.

Natasha Mitchell: So is there a biology of misfortune? More on that provocative proposal later. We’re talking stress, the all pervasive feeling of worry, of burden, of overload and uncertainty. And crucially of loss of control.

Last week an article in the New York Times captured my attention. It told the story of three men, all in relatively good health, having heart attacks within weeks of being laid off from the steel mills in New York. ‘I think the stress just got to him,’ said Kim Smith of her 42-year-old husband Bob.

Well today on the show you might be blown away by what science is revealing about stress in the body and brain—in children, and in all of us. This is All in the Mind and I’m Natasha Mitchell.

Tom Boyce: I think of it as being almost kind of like an archaeological dig, if you will, you begin with the lived experience of the child, the adversity and stressful events that that child encounters, that is experienced by the child within circuitry of the brain.

So we begin this archaeology by exploring what are the brain structures and functions that are changed by early exposure.

Then you dig down a little further, a little smaller in scale and complexity and there are differences in the cellular level, in the communication between neurons within the brain, the kind of neuro-transmitter systems that are present in the brain.

And then a little deeper are the sub-cellular kinds of processes like the epigenetic changes that we are now seeing that are also systematically different between low and high disadvantaged children.

Natasha Mitchell: And by epigenetic you are referring to not the genetics of a person but the cellular architecture that influences which genes are switched on and off in a body, which is very much affected, as we are finding out, by our environment, by what we are exposed to—our parenting, what we eat.

Tom Boyce: Exactly. The metaphor that I like to think about in this regard is when we move we pack all of our stuff in boxes, right? And boxes are great for moving from one place to another, but they’re not very good for actually using the stuff that’s in them.

So we have to unpack these boxes of genes in order to use the genes, to express them, to have them guide the development of proteins that they code for. And epigenetics is this business of the packaging of the genome and the way in which it influences the expression of genes in a differential manner.

Natasha Mitchell: Paediatrician Professor Tom Boyce. And both my guests today think it’s time policy makers took notice of biological evidence in their planning. First to the man whose research has really defined the study of stress.

Professor Bruce McEwen from Rockefeller University is a neuroscientist and a neuro-endocrinologist. Well Bruce, welcome to the program.

Bruce McEwen: Thank you very much, it’s good to be talking with you.

Natasha Mitchell: Stress operates paradoxically, doesn’t it? In the one sense a modicum of stress keeps us on our toes; too much is a problem. I mean the brain reacts to stress but it also adapts to stress, doesn’t it? Tell us about that paradox.

Bruce McEwen: Well I think the best way to start is to talk about the different ways we think of stress. There is positive stress when you rise to a challenge and generally are exhilarated because you are able to meet that challenge.

And it means you have to have a good sense of yourself, a good sense of whether the risk is worth taking, good self-esteem and a good sense of control.

And then there’s tolerable stress, something really bad happens, say the loss of a job, a divorce, the loss of a loved one, but you have these internal resources and you have a social support system that can help you out. so you can weather the storm.

And then there’s toxic stress—there you don’t have the personal resources perhaps, you don’t have the social support system and the favourite definition of stress is really something where you don’t have control.

And then the paradox about the body is that the body produces chemicals, hormones, like cortisol and adrenalin and we also produce inflammatory cytokines when we’re stressed, it affects our metabolic hormones.

Natasha Mitchell: And those cytokines are key immune cells.

Bruce McEwen: Immune cells. but they are also produced by many other cells of the body and the brain and they are sort of really hormones in a way. The autonomic nervous system are sympathetic in our parasympathetic systems, they help keep our heart rate balanced and also affect inflammatory processes, they affect metabolic processes.

So there’s this whole network of what we call allostasis, which is the active process by which the body adapts to a challenge, a stressful situation.

The paradox is that when these chemicals are overproduced or under-produced, when this network is out of sync, then the body can show a wear and tear that we call allostatic low, it really is the price the body pays.

Normally the adaptor response of turn it on and turn it off—you can’t turn it off or if you can’t turn it on in sufficient amounts you have problems. and that’s what leads over time to an accumulation of wear and tear that contributes to all of the diseases of modern life.

Whether it’s obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and even some of the degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and so forth are really products of this and are made worse by this imbalance.

Continued: Stressed out! The powerful biology of stress.

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