I always thought getting cancer or some other chronic life threatening disease was mostly up to genetics with an obvious side of unluckiness. Until I started on my own personal healing journey as a result of my autoimmune disease, Alopecia Areata, I had no clue that stress and toxins are what ultimately get you sick in life. In fact, I’ve learned that our genetics only play a 5-35% role in whether we get a chronic disease. The other 65-95% of your chances are based on the quality of food you eat and the type of lifestyle you live. For those interested, the science behind this is called Epigenetics, which is defined as, “the study of biological mechanisms that will switch genes on and off.”1 In other words, it’s the idea that you can actually influence your gene expression with your thoughts, beliefs and daily actions. Pretty incredible, eh?
The specifics of the science isn’t my primary goal here, though. Rather, it’s to let people know that chronic disease including autoimmune, allergies, asthma, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, obesity and even some cancers; all of which are on the rise today, are in fact preventative. And that we as individuals play an active role in whether we get one through the choices we make, the stress we experience, and the environmental toxins we are exposed to on a daily basis. Given there are multiple factors that play a role and I’ve always been one to write too much on a topic, I’ve broken this blog into two parts. First, we’ll look at the role of stress in turning on our genes for chronic, preventative disease.
The Role of Stress
When we’re stressed our adrenal glands produce stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenaline helps to increase our heart rate and push blood to our largest muscles so that we’re in a better position to flee impending danger. At the same time, a signal is sent to the pituitary gland in the brain, which tells the adrenals to release a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is often referred to as our ‘flight or fight’ response, as it’s what allows us to act extremely quickly and effectively in times of real danger.
The problem is, our modern lives are complicated and full of unrelenting stressful triggers: work deadlines, bills, family commitments, sickness, etc. When stressors are persistent, our brain loses the ability to tell the difference between minor nuisances and major life threatening situations, leading to increased cortisol levels in the body and a state of chronic stress. This is when the bad stuff can start brewing. Because when stress becomes chronic, the immune system goes into overdrive and begins creating inflammation, the root cause of all chronic, preventative disease.
So how do you live a stress free lifestyle?
First, you shift your perception. I was listening to a podcast recently and some doctor (can’t remember his name) explained stress in a way that just clicked in my brain. He said, stress isn’t a tangible thing- you can’t order a bag of it. Instead, stress is your perceived reaction to stimuli. Therefore if you alter the way you think about that stimuli and don’t allow yourself to perceive it as stressful, you don’t experience the feelings of stress. So the reframing of what might be perceived as a stressful event into a growth or opportunity, literally changes the cortisol response in your body. Honestly, it's actually been working for me! Here’s an example: my inbox is filling up while I’m in meetings all day. I can let this totally stress me out or I can shift the way I think about it to be more positive, and see it as the opportunity to help others.
Negative thoughts such as being critical, judgmental, pessimistic or holding on to anger also produce negative stress based emotions. These too can contribute to chronic, preventative disease by producing free radicals in your body that work to turn dormant disease genes on. Up until the past few years, I could label myself as all of those things. It's taken losing most of my hair to Alopecia and this subsequent health journey that I am on to realize the power that my mindset has over the way that I feel. Daily meditation has been a huge factor in helping me get here and I highly recommend it for anyone whose thought about starting a practice. It’s helped me overcome negative thought patterns and drastically reduce the amount of stress I experience, which I truly believe is one of the main reasons I have had such great success with my hair regrowth.
Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this entry over the next few days.