How Stress Relates to Disease States in Our Bodies

Science is great but sometimes, it feels like researchers are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I've been working in holistic and complementary medicine for almost 20 years; first with an undergraduate degree in holistic rehabilitative services and then for the past 18 years practicing traditional Chinese medicine. I aim to put the lens of traditional Chinese medicine on some recent research regarding stress and disease states with hopes to broaden its functional benefits. In my clinical practice I find the broad “whole person” diagnostic patterns in traditional Chinese medicine can bring clarity for my patients that have complex medical problems exacerbated by stress.  Recent research on stress physiology supports the long standing notion that living “out of balance” or under the long-term influence of stress changes our chemical composition.   These changes increase the occurrence of inflammation triggering proteins in the blood and generating markers that MDs see as pathogenic like LDLs (a.k.a. bad cholesterol).

It is true, we are what we eat. According to research from Institute for Behavioral Medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, our blood fats have a lot more to do with how we feel than first realized. The study focused on if diet had a positive impact on recovery from cancer in a sample of women. All of the women were given the same breakfast. Some were cooked in healthy fats and others were cooked in unhealthy fats without the participants knowing which type of fats were in their food. Blood from the women was drawn to see if their recovery changed how they used fats from food. A supplementary survey was given to measure stressful occurrences in each participants life outside the confines of the study. For those who indicated stressful occurrences in their life, the fats they were given in their good fat breakfast were irrelevant, it did not matter whether they ate healthy fats or unhealthy fats.  Stress reactions in the body seemed to transform good fats into the bad fats and distribute proteins that cause inflammation into the bloodstream. 

Jan Kiecolt-Glaser’s Ohio State study focused on two such proteins that are associated with inflammation patterns within the body.  Stressed participants in the study had high amounts of inflammatory proteins as well as unhealthy fats in their blood.  The two proteins were C reactive protein (CRP) and serum amyloid A that are put into the bloodstream by the liver.  Both are associated with vascular inflammation but CRP has been attributed with inflammatory disorders such as Rheumatoid arthritis, Heart Disease and some forms of cancer. 

In my view, stress is the greatest detractor from our health, so much so that physicians attribute the majority of medical visits to the stress condition.  Unfortunately, it seems that it has become the main reason to medicate people.  If the study from Ohio State is correct, stress could lead to a physician prescribing medications to a patient to control their bad blood fats that are actually a sign of poor stress management rather than a disease state.  

The root of it all can effectively be treated by acupuncture.  One study indicated that inflammatory proteins like CRP is greatly reduced by a 14 treatment course of acupuncture over six weeks.  Acupuncture must be considered as an integral part in the treatment and reversal of disease states.  The growing evidence cannot be ignored.  While I'm not attributing disease states solely to stress, there needs to be a shift where we are no longer ignoring the impact of stress on disease states and only telling patients to "just relax”.  Stress worsens disease states and acupuncture reduces stress.  The path to greater health seems clear.  Acupuncture, and other holistic options, appear to be well suited to reduce stress and keep our bodies (and minds) healthy. 

  1. A tough day could erase the perks of choosing ‘good’ fat sources, study finds
  2. The effect of acupuncture for changing the levels of erythrocyte sedimentation rate, C-reactive protein and cytokines in the sera of rheumatoid arthritis patient 
  3. Effect of electroacupuncture intervention on blood-lipid, high-sensitivity C-reactive protein and adiponectin levels in hyperlipidemia rats

Written By:

John Charlebois, LAC

John Charlebois is a licensed acupuncturist specializing in traditional Chinese medicine and is a co-owner at Jade Integrated Health. 

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