Why stress doesn’t just stay in your head

Eva Emerson
Sandy Schaffer
My favorite quote in Nathan Seppa’s story about chronic stress and health belongs to Rosalind Wright, a pulmonologist who studies links between psychological stress and diseases like asthma. Stress, she says, is “not just affecting your head.”

Of course, the brain is where chronic stress starts. But its influences on the body roam far and wide, working insidiously through the neuroendocrine and immune systems, depositing its hazards on the heart, encouraging tumors and discouraging bodily defenses against colds and flu. It’s not surprising that stress chips away at health; as George Bernard Shaw wrote over a century ago, “the sound body is a product of the sound mind.” But Seppa reports new details about how long-lasting stress physicalizes what we experience psychologically, to our body’s detriment. The latest evidence offers insights into how the psyche can sabotage the body. It also shows how very fuzzy is the line we draw between body and mind. What affects one probably influences the other, even if scientists have yet to reveal all the connections and mechanisms.

There’s a bright side, however: The latest bevy of results may point to ways to stop the stress cycle, and they emphasize the importance of doing so. Identifying the molecular actors that transform stress into inflammation may lead to new targets for drugs. And even without pills, there are many effective ways to cope with stress. (Yes, the usual suspects such as tai chi and meditation are both on the list in “Six ways to beat chronic stress,” but so are real-time heart-rate monitoring and parenting classes.)

In another context, different kinds of stress can be good for you. As Laura Beil explains in a feature on antioxidant use among athletes, oxidative stress may be crucial to building up muscle efficiency. That calls into question the popular practice, based on decades-old research, of taking antioxidant supplements to boost athletic performance. In the last 10 years, more sophisticated studies have suggested otherwise, Beil reports.

Also notable in this issue are reports on slipperiness in plate tectonics, a gene that largely controls beak shape in Darwin’s finches and a forecast of megadroughts in the U.S. Southwest. That last one, I hope, won’t make anyone too stressed out.

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