Movember is a great excuse to write an article or two on the topic of health. Unfortunately it is also the start of the holidays so any thoughts on dieting will be wholly ignored (for good reason). Thankfully our diet is really a smaller part of our health than we are typically told. Most people who are unhealthy and overweight have an issue with food rather that the food having an issue with them. The effect of our emotions and state of mind on our health goes well beyond a habit of using food as a source of comfort and has been observed dating back to biblical times and likely prior:
“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” – Proverbs 17:22
“Joyfulness keeps the heart and face young. A good laugh makes us better friends with ourselves and everybody around us.” – Orison Swett Marden
The Link Between Emotional Well-Being and Physical Health
Many studies will report that men are more likely to die from treatable diseases than women because we wait so long to see a doctor about what ails us. I have a hard time buying into that fully because of the high rate of deaths caused by prescription drugs. Does a person's mortality chances increase or decrease solely by seeing a doctor? I think the jury is still out. I do, however, firmly believe that men (and women) deal with health issues, from fatigue to heart attacks to high blood pressure to cancer and more, because we do not tackle the emotional state first. Understanding how stress, fear, anger, and other emotional baggage affects our health is key to a preventative lifestyle.
The Effects of Stress on the Immune System
Fight-or-Flight Response, Adrenaline, and Cortisol
You have likely heard the term fight-or-flight as the common name for the response to a stressful situation. Typically we think about this as a response to a seriously traumatic or fearful event; a mother rescuing her infant from a burning car, a man escaping from a hail of bullet fire, or the surge of energy and clear (yet foggy) mind you feel when backed into a corner at the onset of a fight. These scenarios would definitely qualify for a fight-or-flight response, but our bodies react in a similar fashion, though less potent, at any type of stressful situation. Studies have shown that stress increases to detrimental levels with the pressure of something as common as taking an exam. The typical stresses of life have been linked to all sorts of otherwise unexplained illnesses and likely play a major role today in the uptick of autoimmune, chronic fatigue, low testosterone, and digestive issues. When we have stress or fear (stress being really another word for the feelings associated with an underlying fear), our bodies produce a rush of adrenaline and cortisol to help address the immediate threat.
When we have long term stress or fear-inducing emotional baggage, we produce these same chemicals with such regularity we may not even be aware. Yet, they are taking a toll on our bodies all the same. A constant drip of Adrenaline and Cortisol keeps our bodies from operating like a fine tuned machine should. Instead of healing itself after an injury, inflammation reins. Putting on muscle is harder, concentration is more difficult, cold are caught more easily, and burn-out at your job or marriage is much more likely.
Adrenaline, the more familiar of the two, increases energy and mental alertness by dilating the central blood vessels allowing more oxygen and blood carrying cortisol to the brain and other major organs. It constricts the blood vessels in the peripheral areas of the body (limbs) to reduce blood loss in the case of cut, and slows digestion to divert energy to the muscles. It also triggers the body to burn immediately available calories rather than from those trickling from the digestive system.
When we talk about health issues we typically look at Cortisol which has some counterpart effects on the body with adrenaline. Cortisol, not to be confused with Cortisone, is what ought to give you that burst of energy in the morning to wake you up. It is responsible for reducing inflammation and pain in the body. Cortisol is created through cholesterol but may be converted from other sources in the body as well. For example, when women are pregnant their Progesterone (a hormone created from cholesterol like most hormones) levels increase and at the moment of labor are converted to massive amounts of Cortisol to help with the pain of childbirth. OK, I gotta man up this article real quick.
Cortisol also impairs the immune system, once again to keep the body focused on the immediate threat. Our body has cells, T1, T2, & B, that have various responsibilities regarding detecting and eliminating foreign threats to our immune system. Those cells essentially get an all-stop command triggered by cortisol.
Another function of cortisol is impairment of long term memory storage and access, keeping the mind focused on the situation and relying on instinct or habitual reactions rather than logic. This is what sometimes causes fog-brain or fuzzy memories and is why people who have had a traumatic experience such as PSD, childhood abuse, etc., have trouble dealing with it. The experience is stuck in short term and stays there until it can be addressed without flaring up the emotions, allowing it to be processed and moving it into long term memory. This is also why you practice self-defense to the point of it being a natural instinct. The ability to truly “think on your feet” is related to your calmness in a threatening or intense situation.
Adrenal Fatigue and Testosterone
Apart from the general negative effects of cortisol overproduction there are specific issues that affect our lives as men. Cortisol interferes with the typical receptors uptake of testosterone, causing it to be less effective, increasing fat (man boobs), reducing muscle and bone production, and basically ruining our lives because the female hormones begin to dominate (See references here and here and here). If you can imagine your body has an assembly line where it processes cholesterol to hormones, testosterone production can be reduced and rendered less effective due to cortisol production taking priority. Women have the same issue but they have a more delicate balance than we do and typically notice the ill effects much sooner.
Adrenal Fatigue is when your adrenal glands are essentially maxed out so they are barely keeping up with what your body thinks it needs and are unable to reset and perform normally because they never get a break. This is one reason people get restless at night; their cortisol production is high. In the morning however, the body is finally getting some much needed rest, so cortisol is finally leveling off making it harder to wake up. It becomes a vicious cycle and unfortunately doctors typically treat cortisol over\under production with medication rather than addressing the reasons the patient may be having the issues to begin with.
Everyone Gets Cancer Starting Cells
Speaking specifically on the issue of cancer, which is a primary focus of Movember, a little known fact is that everyone gets cancer cells at many points in their life. Cancerous cells are created through mutations and poor copying of DNA. Luckily each cell acts independently and if it sees a mutation it will either repair itself, die off (Apoptosis), or be attacked by other cells (Natural Killer cells) in the body. The cells stick around when the immune system is unable to kill them allowing the mutated cells to multiply and cancer to form. Along with exercise and diet, dealing with our hearts may end up being a lifesaver.
Recognizing Harmful Emotions Rooted in Fear and Stress
It can be difficult to recognize some of the outward expressions of fear. It is not common place for a man to be able to say, “I am worried about such and such…”. It seems more acceptable to be “ticked” or “frustrated” or throw ourselves into working more hours or escaping in movies or other hobbies. However, if you take some time to dig you will find that some of what we would consider our “personality traits” are really unhealthy characteristics of fear. Here is a list that may be helpful to start addressing:
- Judgmental (towards yourself or others)
- Feeling condemned over small things
- Too much introspection (over analyzing thoughts, feelings, motives)
- Critical attitude
- Being nosey
- Hatred (towards yourself or others)
Dressing the Wounds that have Led to Fear
Every man deals with one, if not most, of the items listed above. The questions then become, “How did we get this way?” and “How do I fix it?” John Eldridge, a popular Christian author, would say that most men suffer wounds at various points in their lives. Generally these start with our own fathers but can come from our own failures as well. As we revisit how we were raised and view our lives with an objective point of view we can begin to see times of obvious pain, or sometimes less obvious neglect, where we were wounded. We have to address these as they are and not make excuses for them, be it our own failures or the failures of those we love. We also need to bring healing, forgiveness, and truth into these areas. This is a road you walk, not a ditch you fall into; it’s going to take some time.
The goal of this article is to show the real link between how we think and our health. Our state of mind is more important than we give it credit for. Tackling the “How do I fix it?” question will be done through various Wolf & Iron articles in the future; it’s just part of growing as a man. Understanding how our bodies work physically is really helpful. It removes some of the mystery of why we act the way we do and can even provide a constant for us to focus on when in a stressful situation. And, if you really want to stay out of the doctors office, make it a point to regularly exercise your other heart muscles.