How Chronic Stress Promotes Spread of Cancer, and What You Can Do About It
Psychologicalstress can take a tremendous toll on your health. One of the reasons for thisis because stresscauses inflammation, which in turn is a hallmark of most diseases, from obesityand diabetes to heart disease and cancer.
Sixyears ago, I interviewed Donald (“Donnie”) Yance,an internationally known herbalist and nutritionist, who shared a reallysurprising piece of information: stress was actually pinned down as a cause ofcancer all the way back in 1908. As Donnie said:
“Eli Jones,the great eclectic physician in cancer, and probably the most brilliant personthat ever lived on the face of the planet, wrote a book in 1908 called “Cancer- Its Causes, Symptoms and Treatment.” There isn’t one inaccuracy I can find inthat book, written more than 100 years ago.”
In this book, Dr. Jones revealed the top causes of cancer, and theNo. 1 cause he listed was unresolved stress.Since then, a number of studies have confirmed this link. In the video above,two doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Center go into some of the details now knownabout stress and cancer.
Chronic Stress Makes Cancer Spread
Mostrecently, a study done on mice found that when the animals were chronicallystressed, their lymphatic systems underwent changes that allowed cancer tospread more quickly and easily. As reported by Science Alert:1
“Althoughthe study hasn’t been replicated in humans as yet, it’s a huge step towardsunderstanding how stress – which has long been linked to cancer progression -actually helps tumour cells escape…
“Not for a minute are we suggesting that someone who’sjust been diagnosed with cancer should not be stressed, because that would haveto be one of the most stressful situations”… Erica Sloan from MonashUniversity in Australia, told ABC News.2
“But rather how do we look after cancer patients,because this suggests that stress not only affects patient wellbeing but alsogets into the body and affects how the tumour progresses.”
How Does Stress Promote the Spread of Cancer?
Cancer cellstypically spread to other areas of the body either via your blood vessels, orthrough your lymphatic system. Stress hormones affect both of these pathways orchannels. Here they were trying to determine how stress hormones affect thespread of cancer cells through the lymphatic system.
Themechanism they found is related to the way adrenaline activates the sympatheticnervous system (SNS) to increase the rate of lymph formation. Adrenaline alsocauses physical changes in the lymph vessels, allowing cancer cells to migrateinto other body parts at a faster rate.
TheNational Cancer Institute has also previously stated that research with animalmodels suggests:3
“[Y]ourbody’s neuroendocrine response (release of hormones into your blood in responseto stimulation of your nervous system) can directly alter important processesin cells that help protect against the formation of cancer, such as DNA repairand the regulation of cell growth.”
Norepinephrinecan stimulate tumor cells to produce two compounds (matrix metalloproteinasescalled MMP-2 and MMP-9) that break down the tissue around the tumor cells,thereby allowing the cells to more easily move into your bloodstream.
Once there,they can travel to other organs and tissues and form additional tumors.
Norepinephrinemay also stimulate tumor cells to release a chemical (vascular endothelialgrowth factor, or VEGF) that aids the growth of the blood vessels that feedcancer cells. This too can increase the growth and spread of the cancer.
Epinephrine — yet another stress hormone — has also been foundto cause changes in certain cancer cells, specifically prostate and breastcancer, in ways that makes them resistant to apoptosis (cell death).
This means that emotional stress can both contribute to thedevelopment of cancer and reduce theeffectiveness of treatments.6
WorkStress Increases Your Risk For Heart Disease
Not surprisingly, psychological stress can alsotake a toll on your heart. As revealed in the documentary film “Of Hearts and Minds,”your heart actually contains neurons, similar to those in your brain, and yourheart and brain are closely connected, creating a symbiotic whole.
One factor that causes a significant amount ofstress for many is their job, and according to recent research,7 there’s a dose-dependent relationship between the number of hours you put ineach week and your risk for developing heart disease. As reported by The New York Times:8
“Afteradjusting for age, sex, income and other factors, they found that for eachadditional hour of work per week over 10 years, there was a 1 percent increasein the risk for heart disease.
Compared withworking 45 hours a week, working 55 hours increased the risk by 16 percent, 60hours by 35 percent, 65 hours by 52 percent, and 70 hours by 74 percent.
Working 75hours or more doubled the risk for a cardiovascular problem — angina, coronaryheart disease, hypertension, stroke or heart attack.”
StressLevels Continue to Rise in the US
Other recent research points out that Americansare more stressed out than ever before. In 2012, Carnegie MellonUniversity researchers reported that stress levels increased as much as 30percent between the years 1983 and 2009.9
More recently, between 2014 and2015 the average stress levels rose from 4.9 to 5.1 on a 10-point stress scale,according to the American Psychological Association. The greatest increase wasnoted among adults reporting being under “extreme stress.” This categoryrose from 18 percent to 24 percent.
The American Psychological Association has performed this stress survey once ayear since 2007, and money and work have consistently been the top two sourcesof stress.
Another work stress survey from 2013 showed that 8 in 10Americans are stressed about their jobs.10 Tied as the No. 1 stressor were poor compensation and unreasonable workloads. Discrimination — whetherreal or anticipated — is also a major source of stress for many.
As reported by Time Magazine:11
“Thismost recent survey also tracked the impact of discrimination on stress. Some 61percent of adults surveyed reported that they have experienced unfair treatmentor discrimination on a day-to-day basis, and many of them experienced stress inconnection to that.
Hispanic and black adults reported being stressed by eventhe anticipation of discrimination, with 3 in 10 who reported experiencingday-to-day discrimination saying they changed their behavior or appearance toavoid harassment or get good service.”
Is YourStress Ruining Your Adrenal Function?
Chronicstress also taxes your adrenals, which can lead to adrenal fatigue. Hormonesproduced by your adrenal glands control a number ofbodily functions, including your “fight or flight” response to stress. Onceadrenal fatigue sets in, your resilience to stress may falter or give outcompletely, making you hypersensitive to even minor stressors that normallywouldn’t throw you off.
- Lingering unresolved negativeemotions such as anger, fear, guilt, and depression
- Overwork, including physical ormental strain
- Sleep deprivation and/orlight-cycle disruption (such as working the night shift or often going to sleeplate)
- Chronic inflammation, infection,illness or pain
Thereare many ways to measure adrenal function. The most common include a 24 hoururine test, timed salivary collections, or a blood draw. For most people atimed urinary collection is the most efficient test. You simply urinate on atest strip at four specific times in a 24 hour period; let the strips dry, andsend them to the lab for analysis.
The test results come back with a verycomprehensive analysis and colorful graphics. The test can be obtained at dutchtest.com. It’s whatI use to check my own adrenal function.
While milder cases of adrenal insufficiency may be addressed usingherbs and dietary supplements, such as B and C vitamins, CoQ10, astragalus andmilk thistle, just to name a few, more severe cases may require taking low doses of hormones such as DHEA pregnenolone, cortisol, testosterone, progesterone, and/or estrogens.
ConquerYour Stress with Energy Psychology
Since psychologicalstress plays such a significant role in health, addressing your emotions is anessential part of a healthy lifestyle. Stress is an inescapablepart of life for most people, but it’s important to understand that it is how you deal with it that will determinewhether it will translate into health problems later on.
Asnoted in a recent article about stress in The New York Times,13 the stress reaction should dissipate as quickly as possible after the perceiveddanger has passed. The scientific term for this is resilience — “the ability of your body to rapidly return to normal,both physically and emotionally, after a stressful event.”
Stressmanagement tools such as breathing exercises can help you develop greaterresilience against stress. Another favorite is the EmotionalFreedom Techniques (EFT). It’s an energy psychology tool thatcan help reprogram your body’s reactions to everyday stress, thereby reducingyour chances of developing adverse health effects. It’s similar to acupuncture,which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body alonginvisible pathways known as meridians.
EFTstimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them withyour fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations.This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist.14 By doing so, you reprogram the way yourbody responds to emotional stressors. Since these stressors are usuallyconnected to physical problems, many people’s diseases and other symptoms canimprove or disappear as well.
Fora demonstration, please see the video above, featuring EFT practitioner JulieSchiffman. For serious or deep-seated emotional problems, I recommend seeing anexperienced EFT therapist, as there is a significant art to the process thatrequires a high level of sophistication if serious problems are to besuccessfully treated.
Researchershave identified four factors that determine the intensity of our response tostress; clinicians sometimes use the acronym N.U.T.S. when referring to them:
- Threat perception
- Sense of no control
Onepsychological tool that can help you change your response to a stressful eventis known as “reframing.” As noted by Chris Kresser, a licensed acupuncturist interested in functional medicine and stress-reduction principles:15
“Let’s say you lose your job. If you perceivethat event as a sign of your worthlessness and an indicator that you’ll neverbe successful, I think you can imagine how your body will respond (it won’t befun!). But what if you saw the loss of your job as an opportunity to pursue alongtime dream that you’ve ignored and a chance for a fresh start?
In thiscase, losing your job would be unlikely to trigger a harmful stress responseand may even be a source of “eustress,” or positive stress.
I’m not suggesting that it’s possible, or evendesirable, to put a positive spin on tragic or horrific events. But if you findyourself feeling overwhelmed by all of the minor, daily hassles thatcharacterize most of our lives, reframing can be a powerful way of mitigatingthe impact of that stress.”
Reframing Tipsand Tricks
Sohow do you go about reframing your response to a stressful event or experience?Kresser lists five strategies that can be helpful in this situation, includingthe following:
- Question your thoughts. Just because you think it doesn’t mean it’sreal or accurate. Oftentimes our thoughts reveal more about our ingrainedbelief systems than actual reality, so you can choose to not believe everythought that crosses your mind.
- Turn perceived threat into a challenge. Oftentimes, there are hidden opportunitiesin stressful events. So ask yourself, how can this experience help you grow andimprove?
- Expand your time horizon. Ask yourself whether this event willactually matter a month, a year, or a decade from now. Do you think you’ll evenremember it?
- Increase your perceived sense of control. While actually being in control ofeverything is impossible, it is your perceived sense of control that matters. You can increase your sense of being in controlby a) focusing on that which you do have influence over, b) coming up with creativesolutions, and c) making a list of resources or people you know you can turn tofor help, should you need it.
Other Stress Management Techniques
Whilestress is widespread in today’s fast-paced world, suffering ill effects fromstress is not an inevitable fact. By learning how to effectively decrease yourstress level and raise your resilience, your health will improve as well.Besides EFT and reframing, there are many other stress reduction techniqueswith a proven track record.
The key is to find out what works best for you, andstick to a daily stress-reduction program. Here are a number of other stressmanagement approaches to consider:16
|Sleep:Sleep deprivation dramatically impairs your body’s ability to handle stressand is yet another risk factor for heart attack, so making sure you get adequate sleep is key for any successful stressmanagement program||TaiChi and Qi Gong: While the evidence is limited, one 2014 meta-analysis17 found that tai chi can help ameliorate depression and anxiety, improve psychologicalwell-being, and provide general stress management|
|Regularphysical activity||Meditation: Taking even 10 minutes to sitquietly, such as during work breaks, can help decrease your feelings ofstress and anxiety|
|Mindfulness training: Research has shown that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is as effective asantidepressants in preventing depression relapse18||Yoga: Health benefits from regular yogapractice have been shown to decrease stress, improve sleep and immunefunction, and reduce food cravings, among other things|
|Social connectedness||Laughter and levity|
|Spendtime in nature||Music|
|Scheduletime to have fun||Aromatherapy|
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