It’s easy to romanticize the body’s devotion to equilibrium in the face of extreme stress. As if it were some untrammeled divinity, a dark and gorgeous liver serenely regulates its life-sustaining activities. Nearby, twin cherubs of the torso, plump kidneys, churn out calls for water and salt. Even Claude Bernard, the 19th-century French physiologist who credited with inventing the concept of internal give-and-take, spoke about his theory with grace and beauty, saying, “A free and autonomous existence is conceivable only because of the stability of the internal milieu.” (Because Bernard also vivisected the family dog, romance can only go so far.)
This balancing act is known as homeostasis. Walter Bradford Cannon coined the term in 1926. Still, in the 1960s, scientists began to apply control theory—a field of engineering concerned with dynamic, changing systems—to human anatomy. It discovers to densely packed with receptors and sensors that are continually monitoring for changes like reductions in blood oxygenation, sugar variations, and external dangers. These sentinels communicate with systems that send out streams of calibrated instructions to bodily sections that can respond to maintain balance. It’s similar to cruise control: Whether you’re ascending or descending a slope, your automobile will make the required adjustments to keep you moving at the speed you selected. The slope, in this metaphor, represents the concept of stress—something that disrupts homeostasis and demands modifications.
This technique is acceptable in the face of transient strains like minor diseases and obnoxious strangers, but what happens when the impediments refuse to go away? Is it possible that such demands will lead to your demise? In a nutshell, sure.
The biological status quo does not return in instances of protracted distress. We designed to adjust for the existence of a stressor until it passes; in acute situations, such as a brawl, a cold, or traffic congestion, the body reacts and then returns to equilibrium once the event ends. In a prolonged crisis, such as a hostile work environment or a pandemic, our system continually responds, negatively impacting health.
When confronted with insurmountable obstacles, our bodies begin to restrict dopamine and growth hormone production while pumping out high cortisol and adrenaline levels, both implicated in the fight-or-flight response. “The more those chemicals exposed to someone, the worse they get,” says George Chrousos, a professor of pediatrics and endocrinology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens Medical School who has studied stress for decades.
Cortisol is a very bothersome hormone. The adrenal glands produce it in reaction to the excitement, and while it’s helpful in a pinch, it’s harmful when taken in excess. When we’re in difficulty, a dose of it can help us leave or prepare for war by raising blood sugar, facilitating tissue repair, and diverting energy away from tasks that aren’t as important at the time, including digestion.
However, because the hormone also promotes glucose production in the liver, prolonged stress increases visceral fat. Internal organs blanketed by these cells and their inflammatory presence increase the risk of various major medical problems, including stroke, Alzheimer’s, and type 2 diabetes. According to a study published in the European Heart Journal in 2019, total body fat mass is not linked to heart disease in women, but increasing levels in the belly linked to a 91 percent higher risk of heart problems. According to a 2008 study published in Neurology, people with the greatest levels of midsection adipose were nearly three times as likely as those with the lowest to acquire dementia. Excess cortisol has linked to decreased bone density and muscle mass in the same way.
Certain chemicals can trigger anxiety and depression as they circulate throughout the body and enter the brain. Corticotropin-releasing hormone, a primary regulator of our adrenal system; the activity-inducing neurotransmitter norepinephrine; and interleukin 6, which helps control inflammation, are among the main reasons. According to a study published in PNAS in 2020, chronic stress might raise blood-brain barrier “leakiness,” enabling more permeation by the same mediators that alter our mental state.
There’s no denying that our ongoing difficulties make us sick. According to a 2003 study from the University of Colorado, stress is responsible for up to 90% of healthcare visits. In October 2020, the American Psychological Association issued a grim warning, saying, “We are confronting a national mental health crisis that could have catastrophic health and societal ramifications for years.” Academics had previously linked chronic stress to the country’s top six causes of death, including heart disease and certain malignancies, even before COVID. So, what are your options?
With a warm and soft laugh, Chrousos continues, “That’s a lengthy story.” He easily lists the standard candidates for anxiety—lifestyle, exercise, sleep, and eating habits—after over 40 years in the area. In addition, he encourages individuals to engage in hobbies such as meditation. “Anything that will keep your mind occupied for a few minutes.”
It’s an excellent point. What we think about impacts us, as anyone who has spent a night doom-scrolling will confirm. According to a 2014 study published in Biological Psychology, even ruminating about problems can increase cortisol levels in patients with depression. That shows that actively diverting one’s attention away from one’s problems can help mitigate the impacts of long-term mental stress. That supported by a meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014: Researchers discovered that mindfulness meditation programs could reduce the negative consequences of stress, such as anxiety, despair, and pain, by a small to moderate amount.
With the chemical imprints of more than a year of pandemic living beginning to accumulate in our bodies, it’s more crucial than ever to explore how our pulsing streams of consciousness might aid or impede our internal balancing act. It’s worth being receptive to it if Chrousos, one of the world’s most quoted endocrinologists, thinks that quieting our brains can help us be more resilient to a world hell-bent on delivering us to early graves. After all, there is something romantic about equilibrium.