Spiraling Physical and Mental Decline
Can Be Reversed:
Anti-aging researchers tell us that the human body is designed to live well beyond the 100-year mark. They frequently cite the longevity of the Hunzas, or other tribal peoples in the mountains of Eastern Europe or South America. Reportedly these peoples were strong and vibrant into their second century and able to perform a hard day’s work until just before death.
While there is no documented proof they survived well into the 100’s, there is documented proof those of the Okinawa prefecture in Japan hold the current record for longevity. There are many living healthy lives past 90 and well over 100 years of age, in the Ikaria region of Greece as well as in Sardinia and parts of Scandinavia. The common denominator for these groups is eating low on the food chain and a relaxed view on life with plenty of physical activity.
In contrast, the average lifespan of an American is about 78 years and many people spend the last 10 to 20 years suffering with debilitating mental and/or physical infirmities. I can’t promise a protocol that will take you beyond your 100th birthday. But I can offer guidance to help slow down and even reverse a self-perpetuating spiral that diminishes physical strength and mental function.
Many of my patients complain of fighting a losing battle. Most of them eat a generally healthy diet and try to stay active. Even so, they are plagued by waning energy, declining strength, loss of muscle mass, an increase in body fat (especially around the middle), and a pervasive mental “fog” that clouds memory and focus.
Without a doubt these are common complaints and many blame a host of culprits such as diminishing hormone levels, environmental toxins, processed foods, sedentary lifestyles, a lack of essential nutrients, genetic predispositions, diminishing geomagnetism, the growing hole in the ozone layer, and many others.
But I contend that there’s a powerful degenerating force so obvious and so insidious that it falls into the “can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees” category! To one degree or another each of the previously listed culprits exerts an age accelerating force on the human body. Some of these factors should be remediated when possible because they add an accelerating spin to the degenerating spiral I’m about to reveal. But addressing this hidden-in-plain-sight metabolic reality head on, will provide liberating help for countless individuals who are struggling with redistribution of muscle to fat, lack of energy, and cognitive issues.
Before Sir Isaac Newton, people had no valid explanation for why “everything that went up — came down.” Since that time, the force of gravity is so obvious we can’t imagine how anyone could miss it.
That’s the type of discovery that I want to share, and it has huge implications for health, appearance, quality of life, and longevity.
I was not on a quest to find a major cause of premature aging when I went to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. But as I worked with victims who were enduring one devastating trauma after another, my eyes were opened to the negative physiological impact unceasing stress can have on a person’s health. This experience has led me to focused research and study in this area.
Stress, per se, is not the culprit. Our bodies are adequately built to handle a modicum of stress without adverse consequences. The human stress response is a good thing, but there are two common stress response dysfunctions that adversely affect our health and quality of life. As identified in the introduction, these are:
Inhibited stress response reset–a failure of the body to return to the pre-stress physiology
Increased stress trigger sensitivity–a diminishing threshold for factors that can initiate a stress response.
When either or both of these conditions is present, there are serious adverse consequences that can quickly pull us into a downward spiral that robs us of energy, decreases strength, wastes muscle, stores unwanted fat, and reduces mental clarity.
We need to start with a clear understanding of stress response physiology. Once we identify the internal factors that trigger stress response, as well as those that hinder a healthy reset of the stress response system, the road to recovery becomes clear and simple. The goal of this chapter is to help you get a sharp picture of the normal stress response and some of the factors that derail it.
The Nervous System and the Stress Response:
The human nervous system is the primary means by which the brain and the body communicate. It is divided into two subsystems: the voluntary nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. All bodily functions that we can control consciously–such as contracting or relaxing muscles–are part of the voluntary nervous system. In contrast, the autonomic (auto = self and nomic = law) nervous system operates on its own (autonomously) without conscious control.
The nervous system exercises control via electrical impulses that travel through nerve cells (neurons). Since neurons do not actually connect to each other, these impulses are conveyed from one neuron to the next through a class of substances called neurotransmitters. As an electrical impulse reaches the end of a neuron that neuron releases a substance call a neurotransmitter. The neurotransmitter then carries the signal across the tiny space between itself and the next neuron (called a synapse). The receiving neuron captures the neurotransmitter and picks up the signal and then relays it to the next neuron in same way. The process continues until the “message” is delivered to the target tissue, which could be skin, a muscle, a gland, an organ, or the brain. It is through the process that the brain communications and controls the body’s response to a wide array of conditions including perceived danger.
Some of our bodily functions are totally managed by the autonomic nervous system, whereas control of many others can be seamlessly passed between the voluntary and autonomic nervous systems.
For example, while you have been reading this chapter you have been blinking your eyes and breathing. Until I mentioned it–unless you have a condition that impedes respiration or there is currently something irritating your eyes–you have been performing both of these functions without any conscious awareness. But if I were to tell you to “blink” or to “take a deep breath,” you could override the autonomic controls and blink at will or fill up your lungs voluntarily. In a couple of minutes, after you stop thinking about these functions, the autonomic nervous system will resume control.
It is this unconscious, self-managing side of the nervous system that controls both our response to stress and the resetting of our physiological status after the stress event has passed. In correspondence to these two major roles, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) can be divided into two parts:
The Sympathetic Nervous System. This arm of the ANS equips the body for a quick response to real or perceived danger. This is often referred to as “fight or flight” since it diverts attention and resources from non-essential bodily functions in order to provide additional strength, energy, and mental focus required to attack a dangerous threat or to run away from it.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System. This arm of the ANS resets bodily function and hormone levels to non-stress status after a stress event has passed. This is often referred to as “rest and digest” because it causes some systems and muscles to relax and resumes non-emergency functions like digestion.
How the Human Stress Response Works:
It is often the body’s inappropriate response to stress that leads to the degenerative affects we often associate with aging. While corrective actions to reverse these dysfunctions will be discussed in later chapters, it is important to understand the system works before to try to correct any dysfunction.
The Stress Response Reset. In the introduction we imagined a man hunting for food in the distant past. Startled by a charging, raging grizzly, his body instantly jumped into “fight or flight” mode. A flurry of electrical impulses and a flood of hormones thrust his body into a state of high alert. Unnecessary functions slowed or stopped and sensual perception, agility, mental focus, and muscle strength were instantly enhanced to aid in self-preservation.
Fortunately, the sympathetic nervous system produces a stress response designed to change us from Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter, to (almost) Superman in the face of real danger. These nearly super-human enhancements come at a high metabolic price, however. In the short term the hormones and redirected energies are not harmful, but the human system cannot sustain this emergency state for extended times without adverse consequences.
For example, as we’ll discuss in the next chapter, quick and abundant energy is required to maintain the stress response. That energy will come primarily by converting muscle into glucose (catabolism). It doesn’t take a Newton or an Einstein to realize that a little of this muscle catabolism, in exchange for the momentary strength and mental focus to avoid being a bear’s next meal, is a price that is completely justified.
However, after the threat has passed, the “rest and digest” Parasympathetic system needs to shut off the flow of emergency chemistry and release substances that will reset the body’s metabolism to “normal.”
Stress Response Triggers:
Before the human stress response deploys, something has initiate the action. These factors are called “triggers.” These can be external or internal.
External triggers are all around us. When one or more of our five senses detects a threat (such as seeing and/or hearing a charging bear) and delivers the news to the brain, the human stress response fires. Internal triggers are plentiful as well. When the body detects a threshold change in any of the physiological states monitored by the brain/nervous system (like a sudden lack of oxygen or a rapid drop in blood sugar), it can set off the same stress response.
There are many factors that can increase trigger sensitivity, including the frequency and duration of previous stress events. As trigger thresholds fall, it’s not too long before a quick drop in blood glucose or a bout of mild exercise can initiate a stress response. Admittedly these conditions may be a bit “stressful” but they are certainly not a “fight or flight” situation. When the stress response is this over-sensitive the body can stay in a perpetual state of emergency that exacts an exorbitant cost on health and quality of life.
Throughout this book we’ll discuss different factors that inhibit your body’s ability to complete a post-stress reset and how to remedy them. We’ll also show how to moderate overly sensitive stress response triggers.
What follows is a short introduction to some of the reset-inhibiting factors and the conditions that can intensify stress trigger sensitivity.
Adding Fuel (Stress) to the Fire (Stress Response):
Meeting an angry grizzly is not a present threat for the majority of us so let’s return to the 21st century and look at fairly typical urban and suburban life. The occasional encounter with natural dangers has been replaced by a host of other stressors.
We start with a nagging pressure to achieve, produce, and find acceptance. A quest to succeed in these areas can expose us to a myriad of stressors. The simple commute to work or a quick trip to the store can expose us to threats that were unknown to people who lived a century ago.
Nearly everywhere one can go, TV, radio, and internet access is instantly available 24/7. Without purposeful avoidance, it is almost impossible to escape a constant barrage of distressing news. Images and reports of senseless and savage violence, political unrest, horrific natural and man-made disasters flash by at mind-numbing speed. Add to that the never-ending cacophony of people chatter, pounding music, and the unnatural sounds of industrial progress. Exposure to repeated emotional trauma, especially, early in life, can lead to a greater propensity for getting stuck in the “fight and flight” mode.
Then there’s wave upon wave of marketing messages bombarding our eyes and ears, plus a constant stream of personal text messages, emails, Facebook, and Twitter. All of this is accessible through a device that tags along to work, to play, to mealtime, to the bathroom, and the bedroom. If that’s not enough, there’s the pressure of mounting personal debt, unstable career concerns, retirement fears and health anxieties. So when does the “fight or flight” stop and the “rest and digest” start?
For many people, it doesn’t!
That’s part of the problem. When your body is under a never-ending stress alert, a constant flood of stress response chemistry–hormones, steroids, and insulin–combined with detrimental coping mechanisms (like binging on “comfort” foods) push our stress response system into a hypersensitive state. Eventually, even those events your body wouldn’t normally consider a threat, such as mild exercise, are interpreted as stress and evoke the human stress response.
More Conditions that Trigger the Stress Response:
The Western Diet. The average western diet, with its high concentration of refined sugars and starches, pulls excessive quantities of insulin into the blood. Because these foods require little processing by the digestive system their sugars quickly enter the bloodstream and spike glucose levels beyond tolerable limits. Immediately, the body is thrust into a hyperglycemic state. In an attempt to bring blood glucose levels within normal limits the pancreas pumps insulin into the bloodstream and effectively pushes the glucose out of the bloodstream and into cellular tissues. As a result, blood glucose levels often fall as quickly and as severely as they spiked causing a state of hypoglycemia. Those who pay attention to their physiological status often refer to this phenomenon as a “sugar crash.” As the glucose level falls, the body jumps into stress response mode.
Insulin Resistance. Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas that helps transport glucose through cellular membranes and into individual cells. The degree to which tissues respond to this glucose-transporting hormone is called insulin sensitivity. Over-exposure to insulin decreases a cell’s insulin sensitivity and creates insulin resistance. As insulin resistance increases, higher volumes of insulin are required to transport the same amount of glucose out of the bloodstream and into energy-hungry cells.
As insulin resistance rises, blood glucose levels tend to become much more volatile. This leads to a stress response as glucose levels rapidly swing from hyperglycemia to hypoglycemia. Increased insulin resistance has been linked to a variety of other conditions including:
Sleepiness after eating
Increased food cravings
Elevated triglyceride levels
High blood pressure
Fat storage around the abdominal organs
Increased risk for coronary heart disease
And many of these conditions that are promoted by insulin resistance also tend to further increased resistance.
Decreased Stores of Choline. Recently, choline was recognized as an essential nutrient and given status as part of the vitamin B complex. That means it must be consumed for the body to remain healthy. The body requires choline to synthesize and maintain the structural integrity of cellular membranes.
It is also has a major role in cell signaling, a complex communication that governs basic cellular activities. Cell signaling is essential for normal brain function and for the contraction of muscles.
The body must have healthy stores of choline to synthesize the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is essential in many brain and nervous system processes, and for the transmission of instructions and sensory data to muscles–for relaxation as well as contraction.
Not only does the body require copious amounts of acetylcholine to initiate the human stress response, it must have lots of it to reset the metabolism after the stress response subsides. During a prolonged stress response, the body can deplete the acetylcholine. This depletion is often the primary factor in the body’s failure to reset and result in temporary muscle weakness and cognitive dysfunction.
In reality, this neurotransmitter is so important for muscular and brain function that acetylcholine-increasing drugs and supplements are currently used by athletes to enhance their response to exercise and prescribed by health professionals in the treatment of dementia and cognitive decline.
4. Oxidative Stress. Oxidative stress is a term given to a process of material decay and/or weakening caused by oxidizing molecules. On steel or iron oxidation is called rust. Oxidation also causes some fruits and vegetables to turn brown. Although the term oxidation derives from the propensity of single oxygen atoms to attack (or “oxidize”) substances, it is certainly not the only atom or molecule that engages in this activity.
Basically oxidation happens as an atom or molecule “steals” electrons from other atoms or molecules. Any substance that aggressively “steals” electrons is called an oxidant (also known as a pro-oxidant). Molecules that help quench a pro-oxidant’s desire for electrons is called an antioxidant.
All damage inflicted by toxins and pathogens involves an oxidative process. By its very nature, the stress response also produces large quantities of pro-oxidants. And, in fact, normal bodily metabolism often creates them as well.
Although the creation of pro-oxidants is not a crisis in and of itself, when the level of pro-oxidants in any given area of the body depletes the available antioxidants in the same area, oxidative stress ensues. Unabated oxidative stress has been linked to virtually every dysfunction and disease known to man.
During oxidative stress, fatty tissues are most susceptible to oxidative damage. Because the brain is about 60% fat (lipid), it is a prime target for this destabilizing activity. In general, oxidative damage of fats is at the core of many neurological diseases and cognitive decline.
Telomere Shortening. Telomeres protect the ends of the DNA strands that make up chromosomes. The precisely twisted, double stranded molecules of DNA contain the genetic coding that allows cells to replicate. When that code gets scrambled, it can result in mutation (cancer), an inability for the cell to reproduce (senescence), or cell death (apoptosis). Since the mind-boggling bio-molecular science of telomeres and cellular reproduction go far beyond the scope of this book, we will only touch on some basic concepts related to telomeres and the human stress response.
Telomeres are made of a series of amino acid pairs. Much like the plastic ends on a shoestring, they keep the DNA strands from unraveling or getting tangled with other strands. In a newborn, telomeres are long, comprised of around 8,000 base pairs of amino acids. By adulthood, they number around 3,000 base pairs and in elderly people as low as 1,500.
Each time a cell replicates, a little bit of each telomere is used, making them a bit shorter. When the telomeres get too short, the cell can no longer reproduce and will eventually die.
Researchers have found that there are several factors, in addition to reproduction, that can accelerate the shortening of telomeres. These factors include such things as insulin resistance and oxidative stress. As mentioned previously, both these factors are linked to the human stress response and can be reversed with key interventions. Recent research is showing that some of these same interventions can slow telomere shortening.
Mitochondria are independent, distinct structures (organelles) inside the cell that synthesize the ultra-high energy molecule adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP). Adenosine tri-phosphate fuels virtually every process in the body, so when mitochondria are not functioning properly, all cellular functions slowdown or shutdown. In fact, the lethal poison cyanide works at the mitochondrial level by inhibiting ATP production.
ATP production also produces the pro-oxidant singlet oxygen. In cells where oxidative stress is already an issue, the process of ATP synthesis only intensifies the problem and further promotes mitochondrial dysfunction because their lipid membranes and genetic material are severely damaged through oxidation.
Additionally, ATP production can be greatly diminished by insulin resistance because it limits the influx of glucose into the cell–an essential food that mitochondria use for ATP synthesis (unless using the alternate fuel of ketones). Since the human stress response increases both insulin resistance and oxidative stress it often increases mitochondrial dysfunction.
Mitochondria are related to the stress response and premature aging in another way as well. These organelles contain their own genetic material and reproduce independently of the cell where they reside. Mitochondrial chromosomes are protected by telomeres that are also susceptible to shortening from the same forces that shorten telomeres in the host cell: reproduction, oxidation, and insulin resistance.
Mounting evidence shows that mitochondrial telomere shortening is directly tied to cellular dysfunction and aging and that mitochondrial decline is a main force in aging. ,
Decreased Stores of Phosphatidylserine:
Preliminary studies show that phosphatidylserine supplementation lessens the increase in serum cortisol levels induced by exercise., Other studies show that phosphatidylserine enhances mood during periods of mental stress. It is reasonable to conclude that deficiencies of this substance have an adverse effect on stress.
Part of the human stress response involves a fairly involved chain reaction: the hypothalamus releases a hormone called corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CHR), CHR then signals the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) by the pituitary gland, that then stimulates the release of adrenalin and cortisol. Much evidence suggests that sound sleep slows the production of ACTH and thus inhibits the release of adrenalin and cortisol.,
A lack of sleep, therefore, results in increased cortisol levels, depression, anxiety, and stress.,,
The human stress response is controlled by the autonomic nervous system and therefore cannot be changed as a mere function of our will. The two common stress response dysfunctions are responsible for many of the conditions we often associate with growing old.
In fact, a hypersensitive stress response, as well as the body’s failure to reset after a stress response, can impair life and health on many levels. Both of these dysfunctional responses can be lessened and even reversed with appropriate intervention. Specific intervention tools will be discussed in later chapters. First, however, we want to address the specifics of the stress response in regard to muscle strength, exercise recovery and results, and muscle wasting in the next chapter.