If there is one good thing that has come form the COVID-19 experience, it is that more attention has been given to predisposing factors that lead to negative outcomes. What’s sad is that it has taken a worldwide pandemic to bring this conversation into the light!
For decades now, I and most other Holistic Health Practitioners have been talking about these life-style and diet factors; which happen to also be the underlying cause of ALL our modern chronic diseases.
The 5 primary topics we need to understand in our effort to prevent disease, and to the restore optimal health, can be categorized as follows:
1. Oxidative Stress and Inflammation
3. The General Adaptation Response
So, let’s break these down in a brief overview…
Oxidative Stress and Inflammation:
When you injure or poison yourself and damage tissue, there is a process known as the First Intention Response. This is where your immune system sends an army of white blood cells to the area of injury and begins the process of removing the old, damaged tissue, rebuilding the “scaffolding” for new tissue and then filling it in to become healthy, new tissue again. This process occurs in all the tissues of the body in response to any type of damage, be it physical or chemical. The things that cause people to experience the most inflammation in todays world are processed foods, which are loaded with chemicals, pesticides and preservatives. We also are exposed to high levels of toxins in our water and air.
Inflammation is a normal, healthy response to the various stressors we might encounter in life. Our bodies evolved with this system in place in oder to help us adapt to our environment. However, the modern world has an over abundance of constant stressors, so this normal mechanism is never turned off. It’s like turning on the hose to water the garden. Just enough water with help the plants grow. If you walk away and forget to turn the water off and come back a day later, you’ll find all your plants flooded and dead.
A similar things happens with Oxidative Stress. All the cells in your body need oxygen in order to function. When our cells use oxygen in order to fuel the mitochondria, the “engines of life”, it is normal to have byproducts to that physiological process called Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), or Free Radials. This is like the exhaust that is the by-product of your cars engine. In normal, healthy physiology, these free radicals are mopped up by the bodies Antioxidant Defense System (ADS). If, however, we are exposed to too much pollution, radiation, infection and stress, this delicate system can be knocked out of balance, and along with the inflammatory response, can cause damage to your cells and DNA. This, in turn, is what leads to chronic, degenerative diseases. It also sets you up for having seriously diminished immune capability if exposed to an infective vector like COVID-19, or any other “bug”.
The things which most directly influence your state of inflammation and oxidative stress are; the food you eat, the quality of sleep you get, your level of physical activity, the amount of stress in your life and your mind-set.
I call this the “Adaptation/Compensation Conundrum”. It’s the idea that nothing grows without stress. Stress can be good…(Eu-stress), or it can be detrimental (Dis-stress). The stressors we deal with in modern life can be categorized as Physical, Chemical, Emotional and Spiritual. We need stress in order to develop into functioning adults! However, when we exceed the proper “dose” of that stressor, our bodies shift from a state of adaptation, where they are getting bigger, faster, stronger and smarter, to a state of compensation. This is like “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Compensations always reduce adaptability so that it takes a smaller stressor to knock you out of balance, and further away from adaptation.
Hormesis is about Dosage! As Paracelsus, the 16th century physician and “father of toxicology” said,
“Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”
General Adaptation Response:
Dr. Hans Selye, a famous Canadian physiologist, coined the term General Adaptation Response while studying the effects of various stressors on the body. Like Hormesis, there is a balance which must occur in order for us to remain healthy.
A sub-section of our nervous system, known as the Autonomic Nervous System, is intricately involved in our response to stressors. It is broken in two parts…the Sympathetic Nervous System, which is like the gas pedal, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which is like the brakes.
We evolved to have these systems in order to survive.
When under threat, the Sympathetic system kicks in with the “Fight, Flight or Freeze” response. In this hyper-alert state, our heart rate, respiration and blood pressure increase, blood is moved away from the gut and to the muscles, digestion stops and we shift into “action” mode. Once the threat is over, the Parasympathetic System kicks in by slowing everything down and allowing your physiology to get back to balance.
The problem in todays world is that our nervous systems can’t distinguish between the physical threats of the past (a tiger trying to eat you with the “threats” we perceive in the modern world, such as financial problems, traffic, stressful work environments, processed foods, disrupted sleep cycles, environmental toxins and chronic disease.
When we are constantly in a state where our “gas pedal is stuck”, as most of us are, we are fanning the flame of inflammation and oxidative stress.
Allostasis literally means, achieving “stability through change.” Put quite simply, the human body always want to achieve balance with the environment it finds itself in, and does so by changing, compensating and adapting.
This is where the body functions as a stress-response mechanism. It needs a variety of stressors in order to adapt. If there is simply too much of the various physical, chemical, emotional and spiritual stressors, it can’t keep up and the “cup overflows.”
On the flip side, a life-style with not enough stress, can cause just as much damage! The idea of Allostasis is like the Goldilocks story…it has to be “just right!” If there is a stressor that initiates a response, enough time must be given for the body to respond before exceeding that threshold again.
Epigenetic is the rapidly developing science which studies how our genes interact with our environment.
It used to be believed that our health was dictated by our genes. Since cracking the Human Genome, researchers have realized there is a stronger relationship between our DNA and our environment than ever thought. In fact, studies are proving that the stressors in our environment have the ability to directly influence how our genes express. Think of it this way…our DNA loads the gun but the environment pulls the trigger. The idea is that you may have a predisposition to express certain genes, but if the environment never initiates that expression, nothing happens. The most exciting thing is that research is showing now that but changing back to a healthy environment, we can REVERSE the expression of some of these genes and restore health!
As you have seen from this brief overview of a VERY complex topic, YOU have control over the various influences which lead to chronic disease and illness, as well as decreased resistance to infection.
How you Think, Move and Eat plays an enormous role in how you either express health or acquire disease. YOU have more direct control than you think… IF you make it a priority.
“If it’s important, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.”