Scientists at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital recently discovered that long-term exposure to stress hormones may be the cause of some symptoms of depression. Researchers wanted to determine the exact nature of the long-recognized link between high cortisol levels and depression. Cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, increases blood pressure and blood sugar, preparing the body to deal with a stressor.
Paul A. Ardayfio, a graduate student at the Harvard Medical School who ran these experiments as part of his dissertation, explained that “we’ve known for over a century that chronically high levels of cortisol were linked to depression, so we decided to test whether or not cortisol directly caused some symptoms of depression.”
The study found that chronic exposure to cortisol may cause some symptoms of depression, but did not find evidence that it causes depression itself.
Ardayfio cautioned against understanding his results as demonstrating a simple cause and effect relationship. “Depression is a very heterogeneous disorder and it has many different causes,” he said. “This may be one part of the puzzle for one particular kind of depression.”
Ardayfio and his advisor, Associate Professor of Psychiatry Kwang-Soo Kim, tested three groups of mice on a standard anxiety-level test. The mice were placed in a darkened chamber, allowed to acclimatize themselves, and were then allowed to explore another brightly lit chamber. Ardayfio and Kim found that, while normal mice readily explored the new area, mice which had received long-term doses of the rodent equivalent of cortisol via drinking water were reluctant to explore and exhibited symptoms that the researchers characterized as anxiety. Anxiety in mice placed in this experimental setup generally predicts how humans will react to stress.
In another experiment, Ardayfio and Kim showed that chronically dosed mice reacted less strongly to sudden stress, a sign that they were burnt out. After Ardayfio defends his dissertation next month, he hopes to study the cellular and molecular pathways associated with cortisol. He said that such research could lead to novel treatments for depression. “By examining the real causes of depression, we could make progress to an effective treatment.”
Yes, stress is contagious. That’s why the American Stress Institute www.stress.org has recently labeled stress America’s # 1 health problem. And for good reason, what with impending war, an uncertain economy, the G-forces of social change, job insecurity . . . it’s no surprise that both a Roper Poll and the federal government’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (www.cdc.gov/niosh/homepage.html) found that most Americans felt “seriously stressed” at least once a week.
Stress is a major problem
To be sure, hundreds of credible studies have linked stress to cancer, heart attacks, compromised immune systems, high blood pressure, migraines, blood clots, back pain, muscle deterioration, digestive disorder, and sundry other behaviors like spousal and child abuse. The American Psychological Assn. (www.apa.org/) reports that workplace assaults as a consequence of “desk rage” now number in the tens of thousands. One study involving 774 men published last year in Health Psychology found that hostility and deep pessimism were worse on our hearts, get this, than smoking, drinking, or even being fat!
What is stress?
Stress, as commonly defined is an unnatural result of the very natural fight-flight adaptability of our ancient progenitors. And what that means is that once upon a time we humans needed to produce an over abundance of a cocktail of hormones to help us hype up like action heroes just before, say . . . killing a mastodon, or maybe beating a hungry saber-toothed tiger back to the family cave. The trouble is that today any number of stressful incidents can trigger the same chemical jolt.
Only “civilized” society has, for good reason, oodles of assault and battery laws about assassinating the neighbor’s obnoxious dog—and or, stalking and slaying his owner because he refuses to do something about it. So, maybe we spend our time complaining to our wives, husbands, cops, friends, lawyers, or perhaps just biting our tongues and stewing in our proverbial juice . . .whatever the case may be, the juice we’re stewing in is called cortisol. And cortisol kills.
To prove that point, a group of scientists forced a unfortunate deer to live in close proximity to a ferocious tiger with no obvious chance of escape. The deer withered and died, his muscles so marinated in cortisol that they just broke down.
Now, if you ever felt like a deer, (or a dear) caged with a tiger yourself, you wouldn’t be alone. According to UCLA biologist Jay Phelan, the chemical reactions of stress passes through the human population the way a shiver of fear shoots through a herd of grazing animals: “You can see it in the natural world: it’s an extended warning system. Animals exquisitely attuned to the stress level of their fellow creatures protect themselves without actually having to see the source of danger.”
So, you see, stress is contagious. Just as in the animal kingdom, it passes from person to person, to person, to person to. . . . . (If you still don’t believe me just honk your horn for 10 seconds in the middle of a grid locked intersection at 6 pm and listen to the chorus of horns it sets off.) The links to, and consequences of, stress, are like dominos.
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