I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

March 10, 2010

More on cortisol and stress

Came across a couple of blog posts about this topic and thought I’d share.  The author does a more complete job describing the role of cortisol in the body than I did in a previous post.

From Life and Body by Ben: Making the most of life and body

Ben’s focus is on the effect of cortisol on the storage of fat.  That’s necessary of course because our bodies need some fat reserves, but we all know that your body can also carry too much fat and that that can have very serious consequences for your health.  And cortisol does have other important functions that it carries out.

As I’ve noted in previous posts I’m very curious about the effects of environmental chemicals on the endocrine system in general and on hormones like cortisol in particular.

Reviewing The Endocrine Disruption Exchange‘s section on Prenatal Origins of Endocrine Disruption (links to each section are included here):

makes me wonder if there’s some sort of domino effect, some sort of cascade.

It’s clear that things like genetics, diet and nutrition, exercise and fitness, and even the stress of modern living all play a part in obesity and general health and well-being.  But having said that, the fact that those do have an effect does not preclude environmental chemicals from having an effect as well.

The problem for scientists and policymakers is that all of these factors are interwoven to some extent.  In The Optimistic Child (1995), a book about “immunizing” children from depression, Martin Seligman writes about an epidemic of depression that started in the late 50s and early 60s.  He notes that depression can have biochemical and genetic causes, then states quite matter of factly that “this epidemic is not biological.”   He states that no biochemical change has been identified that meets the time trends.

He specifically mentions fluoride in the water, ozone-layer breakdown, industrial pollution, and birth control pills as possible contributors to biochemical changes.  Instead, Seligman places the blame squarely on the “self-esteem” movement.  While I think he very well might be right about that having had a major impact, I also think that he was too quick to dismiss the effects of industrial pollution, many of which we weren’t aware of even in 1995.  For example, Our Stolen Future, which documented many of the effects of endocrine disruptors, wasn’t published until 1996.  (We also did not really take into account that children are not just smaller adults, but that childhood is a time when their bodies are growing and changing and that exposure that might not have an effect on an adult, whose body is already grown, might have subtle, yet still damaging consequences for a child.  And recent discoveries in neuroscience seem to indicate that adult brains can, surprise, surprise, still develop neurons.  Perhaps some chemicals are affecting adults’ brains, either directly or indirectly.  Perhaps many mental disorders from anxiety to depression to autism to Alzheimer’s are simply different endpoints on a multi-dimensional “spectrum” of the brain misfunctioning.)

In addition, we now know that drinking water can contain chemicals and byproducts from the drugs and pills people take, household cleaners and soaps (and other consumer products, etc., and we really have no idea how those interact with fluoride and chlorine in water.  (Well, actually, we do know that fluoride and chlorine can react with organic matter in wastewater to form toxic byproducts.)

So here’s are some hypotheses.  Could industrial chemicals have had neurological effects that directly caused an increase in depression (and other mental disorders)?  Could they have affected people’s bodies such that their endocrine systems got out of whack (that, I believe, is the technical term ;-)  )?

Could they have affected the production of cortisol, such that people’s bodies started storing more fat?  Did the resulting imbalance in the endocrine and immune systems start making people more susceptible to stress thereby compounding the problem?  Or are increased cortisol levels the byproduct of some of these processes?  And are some chemicals affecting the ability of the blood-brain barrier to keep certain chemicals out of our brains?

And, going back to Seligman, he argues fairly persuasively (I haven’t finished the book yet), that depression is caused by “learned helplessness.”  Learned helplessness is, according to Seligman, a strong predictor of depression.

Which makes me wonder, what were people’s reactions when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was first published in 1962?  You’ve just found out that the world in which you live is being contaminated by chemicals from industrial plants, pesticides, etc.  Wouldn’t you feel rather helpless?  This is not to say that such information should be kept from us.  Without knowing we can’t make informed choices.

Most people would, I think, agree that there’s some connection between mind and brain, between brain and body.

Aside: While looking for info on Silent Spring, I stumbled across the website for the Silent Spring Institute.  The institute’s mission is to identify and break the links between the environment and women’s health, especially breast cancer.

Interestingly, when I checked out the American Cancer Society’s site, there is no obvious link to anything about causes from exposure to chemicals in the environment.  It seems to be primarily about screening, diagnosis, and treatment.  This is not to say that screening and treatment aren’t important, but why not try to reduce or prevent the occurrence of cancer in the first place?  (The cynical answer is, there’s no profit in that.  More on that in another post.)

With respect to the difference between treatment and prevention (whether it be with respect to a disease or pollution), I am reminded of a story I heard—more of a parable really—many years ago.

A tribe that lived along a river.  One day they found a body floating down the river next to their village.  The tribe members were saddened and decided they would respectfully bury the body.  The next week another body floated down the river.  Again they buried the body.  A few days later, another.  And pretty soon they would sometimes find two or more bodies and hardly a day went by that they didn’t find at least one body.  The tribe became very good at building coffins and digging graves, but it never occurred to them that perhaps they should find out why bodies were floating down the river in the first place.

While we do know the causes of many cancers (and for those for which we do know some of the causes doesn’t mean we know all of the causes), we know a lt more than we did just fifteen years ago.  But we just don’t know enough yet to pinpoint the exact causes of all cancers or diseases or disorders.  Well, scientists are researching that, but that’s not something most of us can do.  Do what can we do?  I guess I’d say the take-away lesson of all of this is, do what you can now to get in shape and to reduce stress.

One of the examples of small steps that Robert Maurer describes in One Small Step Can Change Your Life is of a woman who knew she needed to get more exercise and to eat better, but found the idea of committing to half an hour several times a week too overwhelming.  The step he suggested to her that finally got her started on the way to being in shape was that she simply march in front of the television one minute a day.


1 Comment

  1. My grandmother(GM)well remembers when Carson’s Silent Spring first appeared. Newspapers and magazines made much of the book but the people in the area where my GM lived, and seemingly most people across the country, discounted her conclusions much as they are doing now with global warming.

    You really can’t blame people for taking all this with a grain of salt. Newspapers,television and magazines often cry “wolf” when the wolf is more like a pup.

    Several years ago, a scientist with the University of Missouri warned of a soon to be major earthquake along the New Madrid faultline which never materialized, but caused much worry and fear for those living within the New Madrid fault area, an area which reachesd far and wide in every direction.

    Every year, without fail, newspapers in Central Florida carry warnings that the coming year will be a bad one for hurricanes. I am told that same headline appeared on the front page of the Daytona News Journal this very morning. The warning for last year(2009)was that a great number of devastating hurricanes were on their way to Florida. Thankfully they were wrong but here we are, another year and another warning that this year will see many hurricanes of great destruction.

    My GM also remembers in the 60s when scientists were warning of a new ice age on its way. It was another time when news media jumped on the band wagon and reported remarks from anyone who would speak about the sure thing of a new ice age.

    These are why few people listen today when a warning is issued by the media about a coming disaster, even if the government backs the issue-or, maybe, because they do.

    Comment by slicer30 — March 11, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

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