Monday, February 23, 2009

Stress, Growth, Life, & Hormones

As with most families caring for a child with a severe prolonged illness, our family was under tremendous stress when our little girl was very ill. It was not a good kind of stress. It was too severe. Too prolonged.

But in the long run, I do believe it helped us grow as individuals. It made our marriage stronger. It made our family stronger. It helped me to see the wisdom and strength of my extended family, who all extended moral support in spite of physical distance between us. But that was in the long run. I also know that the chronic, prolonged nature of that horrific stress was physically damaging.

There are some articles reminding us how important stress is to us and how stress motivates us. They talk about how just as there is post-traumatic stress disorder, there is post-traumatic growth: Who Says Stress Is Bad For You? and Stress Could Save Your Life

This has resonated with me, and it made me think about the term "post-traumatic" in "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder" (PTSD). It means ... the trauma has ceased. Only then can the healing and growth occur.

Our child's symptoms traumatized her as they traumatized the whole family. Because of the intensity of what we all went through, that trauma contributed to the shaping of who we are today.

The articles also made me think about how the illnesses my younger daughter got, collectively diagnosed as "schizoaffective," made her so sensitive to the stress, ranging from normal little life things -- good and bad, happy and sad, physical or emotional -- to more severe medical problems affecting body and brain. To us, and to the psychiatrist, at the time, it appeared that she was not "resilient", but it turned out that mentally she was quite resilient. She grew from the trauma, and is now living a productive life, picking up the pieces of shattered dreams and moving on.

At the time, however, it was horrifying and the stress was physically destructive. I experienced situational depression from the trauma. Antidepressants and counseling did not "fix" that, but nutrition did. In my case, the emotional stress must have caused me physical problems. This is not unusual, and we'll talk more about that below.

In my daughter's case, her physical problems caused symptoms which caused stress on her body which caused symptoms which caused stress which caused more symptoms which caused more stress.... and of course, the family was caught in the stress because ... we are a FAMILY.

And now, perhaps, we are different people because of what we went through. We have unique outlooks on life that some families without severe illnesses perhaps don't have. It made us advocates, and, possibly,affected the career paths that our kids have chosen (in social work and in the sciences).

But back to stress and hormones. Hormone imbalance causes stress, and stress causes hormone imbalance.

All kinds of emotional and physical factors cause stress. The body is protected from the damaging results of stress in part by cortisol from our adrenal glands (it is also involved in immune function). They are regulated by the pituitary which is regulated by the part of the brain called the hypothalamus. Thus, this is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

In many cases of chronic stress, the HPA-axis is up-regulated, with high cortisol, adrenaline, etc. levels which can have adverse effects. In my daughter's particular case, with her type of "mental" illness, her HPA was the opposite -- down-regulated with very low cortisol. Cortisol is involved in both stress-tolerance as well as immune function. It is necessary for life.

Below is an article about research into re-setting the HPA when it is upregulated - with high cortisol. While it might not have been a viable option for my daughter, since her cortisol was already too low, by adjusting and normalizing some of her other hormones, and addressing other physical, metabolic & nutritional needs, her cortisol level is normalizing as well. This, her endocrinologist says, is an indicator of true healing.

Tweaking Hormones Might Ease Chronic Stress
January 27 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. and Canadian scientists say they've devised a potential new method of promoting recovery from chronic stress disorders by utilizing the natural dynamics of the body's "fight or flight" response.

The approach focuses on the hypothalamic, pituitary, adrenal (HPA) axis, one of the body's major control systems. The HPA axis uses hormone feedback regulatory loops to help maintain body homeostasis (balance of systems).

A team led by Amos Ben-Zvi, of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, say that when the HPA axis is pushed far from its natural homeostatic rest point, it may be unable to fully recover. When that happens, HPA axis dysfunction may become permanent, according to background information in the study.

HPA axis dysfunction has been linked to disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and Alzheimer's disease.

The researchers created a short-term intervention designed to help restore normal HPA axis. This method involves temporarily reducing the availability of cortisol, a hormone involved in immune function. Reduced cortisol levels prompt the HPA axis to overcompensate and re-set itself into normal regulation.

This new model, which needs to be tested in clinical tests, was described in an article published Jan. 23 in the journal PLoS Computational Biology.

SOURCE: Public Library of Science, news release, Jan. 22, 2009

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Anonymous said...

Stress as caregivers can cause us to grow, but does also do physical damage. And whether the result is damage to the endocrine system, brain, immune response, bowels, or anything else, treatment must be individualized based on what then went wrong in the body.

Relaxation techniques & exercise can help while the body heals with other treatments. I love meditation and strength training as well as the martial arts which keeps my mind focused.

But truly individualized treatment is really the only way to go.

I wish doctors, influenced by the big pharma one size fits all approach would pay attention to this. Unfortunately, it takes more time and insurance does not want to pay doctors for more time. They have become drug dispensing machines instead of doing what they used to do which is try to truly heal people.

Anonymous said...

i would like to thank the lady that put this article online, many many thanks.