Stress and Disease: It's Personal

According to a recent study, 60 to 80 percent of visits to primary care doctors may be related to stress, yet only 3 percent of patients receive stress management counseling. Why is it that so few people are getting help from their health care practitioners when it comes to stress?
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According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 60 to 80 percent of visits to primary care doctors may be related to stress, yet only 3 percent of patients receive stress management counseling. Why is it that so few people are getting help from their health care practitioners when it comes to stress?

There are probably many reasons, but one explanation is that stress is personal. It takes time for a practitioner to understand what is stressful for each patient and to find solutions that work for each individual. Though the medical system is changing, conventional medicine still treats disease in isolation, rather than looking at a person's whole health picture. I've found in my own practice that once we begin to take a more holistic approach to symptoms and disease, we find that so many of our health issues are rooted in stress on the body.

Surprising Stressors

We all know things like traffic jams, lack of sleep, too much sugar, long hours at work or unpredictable situations can tax our bodies, but there are other factors that can increase the stress hormone cortisol that may be surprising to you. I've listed some of these below with their corresponding symptoms.

Food sensitivities: Symptoms may include bloating, gas, brain fog, fatigue, joint pain, diarrhea.
Nutrient deficiencies: Symptoms may include leg cramps, chocolate cravings, hair loss, fatigue, brittle nails and hair.
Hormonal imbalance: Symptoms may include irritability, carbohydrate cravings, fatigue, hot flashes and/or night sweats, irregular periods.
Too much exercise: Symptoms may include feeling depleted after exercise, fatigue, missing menstrual periods.
Infrequent meals and snacks: Symptoms may include lightheadedness, dizziness, irritability between meals.

Each time your body has to compensate for the losses associated with one of the above stressors, you put more strain on your body. And in many cases, the adrenal glands (your stress responders) release cortisol to manage the stress. Yet increased cortisol is associated with many diseases including Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, insulin resistance, obesity and Type 2 diabetes. So if we could figure out what is stressing us, we could potentially help prevent some of the most common health problems in America.

Emotional Stress -- Impossible to Change?

Emotional stress is often the hardest to solve for patients and practitioners. Whether it's a troubled relationship, a death in your family, an unfortunate job situation or historical trauma that hasn't been processed, there are many emotional stressors your body has to contend with on a daily basis. And even if it seems like the stress is only occurring in your mind, your adrenals are still pumping out cortisol to manage the situation.

So how can we change emotional stress? Is it even possible? In many cases it is, but it takes work, and often a new way of thinking. A while back I wrote a blog post called "What You Think Is What You Get," which was inspired by a conversation I had with Louise Hay and Cheryl Richardson. I discuss how very powerful your thoughts can be and how positive thinking and daily affirmations can make an enormous difference in your life. You might also consider talking with a counselor about your emotional heath, experimenting with the Emotional Freedom Technique or participating in a program like the Hoffman Quadrinity Process to reverse negative patterns and improve emotional stress.

What's Stressing You?

It's sometimes hard to know everything that may be contributing to your stress. I always ask women to take an inventory of their stressors. This requires sitting down and listing the things in their lives that feel stressful. You might also consider taking the Stress Quiz we offer on to rate your stress and see how you compare to other women. I also ask about some of the symptoms I mentioned above to see if any physical stressors are involved -- because often these aren't considered real "stress." When you combine the two lists, you'll have a better idea of what is stressing you.

Once you know, you can start on your journey toward eliminating the sources of your stress. This journey may simply begin by going back to your primary health care practitioner and asking more pointed questions about your stress and how to reduce it. Or you might pick one single aspect of your stress load and decide how to make a change in your life that reduces just that one stressor. It's sometimes easiest to start with the physical and work toward reducing emotional stressors over the long term.

For more information and help, see my articles on stress and adrenal health.

For more by Marcelle Pick, OB-GYN, NP, click here.

For more on stress, click here.

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