Escaping The Tiger: How Chronic Stress Causes Disease

by Dr. Christopher on April 5, 2011

5% of disease is genetic.  The other 95% is caused by stress [and lifestyle choices]. ~Bruce Lipton, Author of The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter, & Miracles
 (the brackets are mine)

Imagine you’re a hunter-gatherer in the paleolithic period.  (Don’t imagine too hard, you know you are).

You’re sitting on a hill enjoying the sunset with your cave-babe (or caveman) when a tiger peaks out from behind a tree to observe his prey (you). 

Tony (what we’ll call the tiger from here on) takes off at a sprinter’s pace, straight for you and your mate.

And the chase begins.

Fight or Flight?

What do you do?  Do you fight Tony?  Or run from him?

No matter which choice you make, the stress response has been activated.

What the conventional medical community defines as disease (heart disease, diabetes, obesity, ADHD) is actually the body’s natural healthy response to your environment.

Their answer is to medicate, to cover up symptoms at the cost of letting the problem exist underneath.

But without the symptoms caused by that stress, you wouldn’t be able to fight or flee from Tony. 

Let’s look at what happens when you see Tony sprint after you.

What Stress Does To Your Body

All catabolic activities increase.  “Catabolic” means any body processes that break your body down for survival in the moment, ie. muscle is broken down into sugar for energy use.

All anabolic activities decrease.  “Anabolic” means any body processes that build your body up for survival in the future, ie. you don’t need sex drive, reproduce function, to digest foods, or immune function because your life is over if you don’t escape from Tony.

Heart rate (and your pulse) increases.  The more quickly your heart pumps, the more quickly blood and resources can get to the cells of your muscles (for running or fighting).  When you’re stressed out for too long, your heart gets tired.  Sounds like a heart attack waiting to happen.

Blood pressure increases.  The greater the pressure in the blood vessels, the more quickly resources will get into the cells of your muscles.  Don’t worry, there are meds to lower your blood pressure.

Blood sugar increases.  You need sugar (energy) in order to do run or fight.  You don’t need sugar running through your blood vessels for weeks, months, or years at a time.  Sugar (and non-vegetable/non-fruit carbohydrate) is actually toxic and damaging to your body

Insulin sensitivity decreases.  Insulin is a storage (anabolic) hormone that stores sugar as fat for later use.  If insulin does not work properly, then that means more sugar (energy) for your muscles to use in times of stress.  What does this sound like?  (Hint: conventional medicine says this disease is genetic and there are two types).

Emotional state and anxiety increases.  If you escape the tiger, you want to remember (by getting anxious) where you found Tony so that you can avoid him in the future.  Strung out much?

Factual learning decreases.  You don’t need to learn calculus, how to squat, or how to make chicken hash (delicious Paleo-friendly recipe) if you don’t survive Tony.  What does this sound like?  (Hint: kids take ritalin or adderall for it).

What’s The Problem?

You see, the problem is not the heart rate, the blood pressure, blood sugar, or the anxiety.  It’s the stress we continually expose ourselves to. 

It’s running from Tony for weeks, months, and years until your body gives up.

Deepak Chopra said “No one has been able to scientifically prove that getting sick is necessary.”

In the hunter-gatherer days, the tiger was a brief stress in the environment that you fought and defeated or fled from and found security.

Today, the tiger is an animal that you can’t get away from, fighting or running from for weeks, months, or years. 

Think of the father who works a 9-5 job, in his 40’s, has three kids, and dies of a heart attack. 

He couldn’t escape “the tiger” anymore.

How to Get Away From Tony

The tiger is a metaphor for the stress you experience in your life.

Stress comes in many forms:

  • processed foods (This includes Tony’s Frosted Flakes.  It’s OK as a treat, but more than that, it’s not GR-R-REAT!!!!)
  • grains
  • dairy
  • getting less than 9 hours of sleep per night (especially in the winter)
  • lack of exercise or activity
  • excessive exercise or activity
  • pollution
  • working too much (apparently, our Paleolithic ancestors only worked 15 hours a week, collecting foods, securing shelter, etc.)
  • working too little
  • worrying about the past, fretting over the future.

Stress is healthy in short spurts.  Stressing your body through exercise, then resting and allowing yourself to heal and supercompensate allows you to grow stronger.  Then you can run away faster from the tiger.

Stress kills when you can’t get away from it.

8 Tips to Escape Stress Every Day

  1. Live in the present. 
  2. Set aside time away from work.
  3. Read non-work related material.
  4. Do something you love: Do you love knitting or stargazing?  Then do it!
  5. Exercise (a little bit.): It goes a long way.
  6. Listen to music: I’m partial to reggae when I really need a pick me up.  I’ve heard that some can really relax to classical music.
  7. Play: Remember what it’s like to be a child?
  8. Socialize: spend time with family, friends, or your tribe.  Having evolved in social groups, not having one can be a signficant stress to your health. 

What do you do to escape stress?

Much appreciation to Billy Gregson for his humor (we both think Tony The Tiger is a fun character) and help in editing this post.  James Chestnut D.C. first introduced me to this concept of stress.

Dr. Christopher Stepien is a chiropractor, chronic pain specialist, and A.R.T. provider, and clinic director of the Barefoot Rehabilitation Clinic in Morristown, NJ.  He practices out of Crossfit Morristown.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Pat April 6, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Beautiful post Chris! Well said. I agree whole heartedly with all of what you said and need to work on escaping stress myself. Thanks for all the inspiration in all your articles.

Kevin April 6, 2011 at 1:30 pm

To get away from stress I hike or surf. Both completely take me away from whatever else is going on in my life..

Dr. Christopher April 6, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Pat …

Happy you liked. It’s always a work in progress. Even when you think you figured out how to escape, you might forget. This is what I struggle with, remembering.

Thank you for the comment Pat. : )

Dr. Christopher April 6, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Kevin …

I love hiking and now surfing, thanks to you. I’m going to become a surfing machine in August. Plus, maybe I’ll get to meet Eddie Vedder out on the water.

Mike B April 6, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Dr. Chris,

I’ve heard different opinions and facts when it comes to the amount of sleep we are suppose to get. Is 9 hours really the standard?

Dr. Christopher April 6, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Hey Mike,

The more I read and the more I think about it, 9 hours seems right, especially for the summer. The standard for the winter is definitely more than that, 10.5 hours?

2 Reasons/Theories:
1. I went to sleep between 8PM- 9PM for a couple of months this winter and woke up between 6AM-8AM, thus getting more hours than usual. This was the first winter I can remember not feeling extra depressed (S.A.D. or seasonal affective disorder) from the cold.
2. In our Paleolithic histories, when it was dark, we’d be sleeping or doing other things that we could only do in the dark (probably limited to reproducing). That means we’d get up to 12-13 hours in the winter, 9-10 hours in the summer. This makes sense that this is what our genes evolved to require.

I don’t have an exact number. I notice though, when people get more sleep, everything in their lives tends to get better.

Mike B April 6, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Fair enough. I appreciate you answering my question.
It will be challenging to get that many hours, but I would like to see if how my body reacts to it.
Thanks Dr Chris

Dr. Christopher April 7, 2011 at 9:59 am

Haha, I appreciate you asking the question Mike.

Try it. It’s pretty amazing. Got 10 hours last night. Feel refreshed.

You’re already an animal, imagine how much a little sleep will make you one even more so.

Layla Andrews April 13, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Thanks for this, I never knew exactly what your body does when you’re stressed. In relation to “9 hours of sleep a night” – I try to get 8, and i’m ok with that. I know some people who seem to need less sleep.

Dr. Christopher April 13, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Your welcome Layla. 8 is better than 7. As long as you feel rested and calm in the morning, I’m happy. : )

Beverly October 27, 2011 at 2:17 pm

I like what you guys are usually up too. This sort of clever work and coverage! Keep up the amazing works guys I’ve you guys to our blogroll.
Beverly recently posted..great sky

Dr. Christopher October 27, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Appreciate you Beverly!

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