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The physiology and psychology of stress, part 1

The body normally knows how to take care of itself. When there is need in a particular area of the body, a message is sent to the brain to alert it of the need in question. The brain responds accordingly, whether it be to provide more energy to the immune system, to purge an illness, repair an injury, or regulate sugar levels. This system is in constant motion, with the brain receiving and responding to signals so that the body’s needs are met. This is true for every system in the body: digestive, hormonal, detoxification, nervous, etc.

That said, we have to understand that everything that goes up comes back down. Every activation of a mechanism has to be regulated by other systems. All of this is modulated by the brain. This is the case for the automatic nervous system, which is composed of a sympathetic nervous system and a parasympathetic nervous system. This nervous system is present in a variety of bodily activities including heart activity, lungs, digestion functions, and even intimacy and other mechanisms of the body. It’s known as the stress response system. This system is tuned at a high frequency when we are face life threatening danger – such as being chased by a wild animal.

Let’s talk about the biochemistry and anatomic parts of the body involved with this. There is, of course, the brain and it’s separate regions – the limbic area, the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. Above the kidneys we also have the adrenals–two small glands with the ability to make hormones that regulate the body.

Before moving forward, let’s go back to the brain. There was an old belief that the pituitary gland was the master gland. That’s not the case; some outdated scientific information taught that the hypothalamus was the master gland. That is also not true. It is the brain itself that is the “master gland.” It gathers information from every single cell in the body regarding their status, including nutrition, damage, temperature, pH change, toxicity levels and every other detail. All of this information is recorded back to the brain, and the brain calculates and sends signals to the hypothalamus in the limbic area to initiate hormone formation. In reality, neither the hypothalamus or the pituitary gland knows how to do this, but the brain with its hundred billion cells does. In a very sophisticated way, it signals this process, initiating messages to these glands. From this point, the hypothalamus produces the appropriate hormones and sends them via the bloodstream to the adrenal glands.

As a side note, the brain has very special cells known as neurons that hold information–they know what the body looks like when it’s running at an optimal level. The brain knows which gland needs to be activated to make the right chemicals to regulate the body. It also knows when each system needs to be activated–when we need to be hungry, when we need insulin, etc. All of our individual body parts know how to perform their respective tasks, but the brain is the one that knows when and to what degree each part should perform their tasks.

The brain communicates with most body parts like a wireless connection, but there is a part of the body that the brain is wired up to and communicates with – the nervous system.

That’s the physiological side of the story, but the brain is more than a computer and the body is much more sophisticated than a piece of hardware. If the body lacks a hormone, putting more hormone into the body will not fix everything. This is because there is another aspect to this that adds another level to our health – the emotional and psychological aspect. If an infant is sick, they will heal faster if they are getting constant love from their mother, through being held and hugged. The reason this happens is because of sensors on the skin that trigger as the baby is held by their mother. If the mother is not under chronic stress, she produces oxytocin–a neurotransmitter of the brain–that activates a feeling of well-being. The baby’s skin receptors read those changes, causing the signal to travel into the baby’s body and into their brain. The baby’s brain in turn produces serotonin and dopamine that, along with other chemicals, induce a stronger immune response.

This is what facilitates healing. Doctors, psychiatrists, neuroscientists and all kinds of health professionals often miss the mark because they only consider their field of expertise, which makes up one aspect of human health, without looking at health as a whole.

As we can see, our bodies and health are not strictly mechanical and anatomic. It goes much deeper than that. The same is true with all illness, including serious cases such as cancer. Patients with cancer have relatives and caretakers who are under a lot of stress. Whether obvious or not, their emotional status affects how well the cancer patient heals, similar to how a baby responds to their mother.

It’s really amazing how this works, but unfortunately we’ve been dismissing this in the process of healing. A patient is taken, and the obvious symptoms are treated, but we still see problems and delays in the healing regardless of quality medical care. Healing has a lot to do with what is taking place in our minds and the quality of our relationships. The quality of our relationships and emotions depend on how we see the world around us. If you are interested in learning more on this topic, we will continue to speak on it in greater depth on next blog addition.

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