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Can Stress Cause Autoimmune Disease? Dr. Richard Weinstein Thinks So

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Local doctor’s book explores stress as cause of auto-immune disease By JILL MORINO, SANTA CRUZ SENTINEL CORRESPONDENT

How many of us know someone who just doesn’t feel well. There’s no specific diagnosis, just a general feeling of malaise, some mid-weight gain, insomnia, perhaps depression, sugar cravings and fatigue. Sound familiar? If the person is middle-aged and female, everyone assumes hormones. The allopathic, or standard Western medical, community is now recognizing that middle-aged men may also suffer from hormonal imbalance. But what about the young person with these symptoms who does not fit the profile? Turns out hormones could also be the culprit.

Dr. Richard Weinstein in his new book "The Stress Effect" eloquently explains the connection between the stress hormone cortisol and the marked increase in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, insomnia, auto immune impairment and depression, to name a few. Weinstein maintains that in addition to stress, internal inflammation plays a significant role in the chronic release of stress hormones and consequent imbalance. If not rectified this overload can cause a cascade of serious responses over time. Cortisol is the hormone released when we experience the fight or flight response. We perceive danger, perhaps someone cuts us off in traffic, and our body automatically goes into survival mode. Our brain signals, via hormones, the adrenal cortex to release cortisol. We first feel our heart rate increase due to epinephrine (adrenaline), however the response does not stop there. According to Weinstein, some of the effects are as follows:
• Increased rate of production of glucose (sugar) 6 to 10 times the normal amount in order that we have enough fuel to deal with the perceived danger.
• Selected cells no longer respond to insulin, the substance which normally metabolizes our sugar.
• Insulin production is reduced.
• Growth and tissue repair are halted.
• Arteries narrow, increasing blood pressure (so oxygen-enriched blood will reach our muscles). All this is very good when we are facing real danger.
However, if this response becomes chronic, it is a problem. We are all familiar with the stress response, even as children when we might have wondered what that shadow was lurking in the hall, and we scared ourselves.

So where does the inflammation come in? Cortisol, in addition to being a stress response hormone, is an anti-inflammatory hormone. Weinstein describes various scenarios that may lead to a chronic anti-inflammatory response. The major offenders he contends are fast foods, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), antibiotics, caffeine, alcohol and mental stress. All may contribute to the degradation of the walls of the digestive tract which can lead to gastrointestinal inflammation and thus the release of cortisol. As cortisol inhibits the ability of the digestive tract to repair itself, the inflammation continues and so does cortisol release. Here is the beginning of a vicious cycle. According to Weinstein, one in five people who have a serious intestinal tract inflammation have no warning. There are 16,500 deaths in the United States every year from intestinal tract bleeding caused by the overuse of NSAIDS. The irony lies in the fact that while one may take NSAIDS for chronic pain, in doing so may ultimately compromise the ability of the body to heal. And that is only one scenario. Exposure to toxins, via a damaged intestinal tract due to inflammation, overtaxes the immune system leaving us vulnerable to a host of autoimmune responses.

Easy to detect "The Stress Effect" presents a clear and concise explanation of the evolution of many of the disease processes that are reaching epidemic levels in our society. It is accessible to the layman and may be informative to the health practitioner as well. Weinstein presents an easy method of detection for this syndrome, (saliva testing) and an extensive protocol for healing. This type of diagnosis is beginning to be used by a wide variety of health practitioners, including some allopathic physicians.

As his background is chiropractic, he discusses health and well-being in the context of the triangle of health which includes structural, chemical and psychological integrity. He touches on all these subjects providing a wealth of information and insight. There is an old story about seven blind men touching an elephant, one holds the trunk, one sits on top of the back, etc. They each describe their experience of the elephant. Their accounts vary and yet are accurate. This tale is a great metaphor for the varied approaches to healing: allopathic, chiropractic, homeopathic, Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic and naturopathic. Each has a unique outlook to the same beast.

There is one reference in Weinstein’s book which may cause some practitioners of Chinese medicine to flinch. He suggests placing a cold pack on the lower back of a 42-year-old man in the concrete-pouring business as a preventative measure for chronic low-back pain. The explanation for this treatment is very interesting. As ligaments are composed primarily of collagen their molecules bind together in a cold environment, not unlike Jell-O. The cold prevents ligaments from becoming progressively weakened. In Chinese medicine one encourages the patient to keep the low back warm as repetitive cold may damage the kidney. This is especially important for older people. Different healing modalities are appropriate at different times throughout a person’s life. The risks versus benefits must always be weighed and measured.

It is interesting to note aspects of Weinstein’s information parallels Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient knowledge. It also teaches that the onset of many diseases begins in the colon and that the unhealthy colon will in time effect other organs of elimination, the liver, kidneys, lymphatic system and finally the entire system. Ultimately although chronic inflammation and stress may be the cause of the cortisol imbalances the underlying problem which brings us to this point remains our society’s desire for the quick fix; fast food, the overuse of antibiotics, alcohol to self- medicate for emotional pain and caffeine to keep going when we need rest. It is difficult to get away from this in the ever-increasing pace of daily life.

Weinstein makes some good suggestions for stress management, as well as dietary considerations. "The Stress Effect" offers critical information at a time when many are mystified by the declining health of our population. Hopefully it will serve to educate and add to a growing awareness which may lead many of us to make better choices on a daily basis.

Editor’s note: “The Stress Effect” is available at About the author: Jill B. Marino, L.Ac., is an acupuncturist currently practicing in Santa Cruz. Source: Santa Cruz Sentinel. Copyright © 1999-2004 Santa Cruz Sentinel.

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