Stress & its Relationship to Disease

By Dee Atkinson, FNIMH

“Stress is the non specific response of the body to any demand made upon it”
~ Hans Seyle

When our body stops managing to maintain internal balance and harmony there is an increased likelihood that we develop disease. Stress and the sustained release of stress hormones can cause organs to function abnormally as they try to create internal balance.

On top of this our lifestyle responses to stress often fuel the situation: diets high in processed foods, sugars and alcohol resulting in overload of toxic substances. The body can deal with only so much and, eventually, health begins to be compromised.

Long term or chronic stress can affect all the body systems, skin, hormones, cardiovascular system, digestive system, immune system and the nervous system. The physical expression of this chronic stress can often be IBS, eczema, migraines, and even excessive menopause symptoms. Certain types of stress can trigger psychological problems, some of which can be long lasting. The body is unable to balance itself and begins to show signs of that imbalance or "dis-ease".

Dynamic Equilibrium and Biological Stress

The French physiologist Claude Bernard used the concept of ‘Dynamic Equilibrium’ to describe the way the body always seeks to find internal balance: the body adjusts constantly to best suit the circumstances and environment.

Hans Selye was possibly the first person to demonstrate the existence of biological stress. In 1936 he developed the theory of the General Adaption Syndrome (GAS), a three stage process the body goes through when under prolonged stress, namely: alarm, resistance and exhaustion.

Alarm: This is the fright, fight or flight response. Catecholamine (adrenalin) release leads to activation of the neuro-endocrine system and consequent increased heart rate and respiration rate, increased blood pressure, gluconeogenesis and increased insulin release.

Resistance: Adrenalin runs out and Cortisol is released from the adrenal glands. Blood pressure and heart rate begin to normalise. The body learns to live at higher stress level. You think you are coping but your internal environment tells a different story. Symptoms include frustration, irritability and poor concentration.

Exhaustion: Prolonged or chronic stress will exhaust the adrenal glands and drain physical and mental resources. Symptoms include fatigue, burnout, depression, anxiety, weakened immune system and risk of a whole range of illnesses.

Catabolic Stress

The ability of one’s body to manage stress is partly determined by our body’s ability to adapt to the stressors. The body’s ability to maintain a balance between anabolic (building up) and catabolic (breaking down) activity is critical to every aspect of human health.

Chronic stress causes the body to be in an over catabolic (breaking down) state; this causes damage by breakdown, weakness, exhaustion, depletion and is associated with stress, disease and ageing.  Physical signs include muscle loss, poor physical and mental performance, immune breakdown and poor recovery, hormone imbalances and accelerated ageing.

How we respond to stress and how vulnerable we are to it varies from one individual to another. Many factors determine our response to stress, genetic, our social and environmental situation and our constitutional make up. Studies have shown that stress is a key factor in developing many diseases from heart disease to cancer.

The Effects of Long-term Stress

How we cope with stress is determined largely by our ability to adapt to the stress. If the stress is short lived, and the stress responses are turned off after a short time, the body will have a healthy response to the stress. If the stress is long term and the body continues to produce excess cortisol a whole range of physiological changes start to take place:

  • Diminishes cellular utilization of glucose
  • Diminishes lymphocyte numbers and functions
  • Increases blood sugar levels
  • Decreases protein synthesis
  • Increases protein breakdown that can lead to muscle wasting
  • Causes demineralization of bone that can lead to osteoporosis
  • Interferes with skin regeneration and healing
  • Causes shrinking of lymphatic tissue

 Adaptogens in Herbal medicine

The term ‘adaptogen” was coined by the Russian physician and pharmacologist Nicholai Lazarev in 1962. Lazarev categorised as adaptogen those plants that improve non specific resistance to all kinds of stressors by helping the organism to adapt or adjust to changes in the environment. Adaptogenic plants changed in response to the environment, they adapted to survive, and contain a unique composition of biologically active substances.

Lazarev concluded that adaptogens can induce in an organism, what he called a “state of enhanced general resistance”. The ability to modulate the stress response and at the same time reduce the harmful consequences of stress is the main property of an adaptogen.

Adaptogens contain constituents that will support and help to normalise adrenal function, the key to reducing the effect of stressors on the body. This will in turn support normalisation of blood sugar and immune system as well as regulation of hormones and blood pressure.

Lazarev talked about three phases of adaptogenic action under stressful conditions:

1: Activation of the organisms systems
2: Protection from stress induced damage
3: Regeneration and repair

He also talked about three major benefits of adaptogens:

1: Increased energy and stamina
2: Improved ability to carry out demanding tasks
3: Enhanced ability to tolerate and recover from all types of stressors.
(taken from Yance: Adaptogens in Herbal Medicine page 80)

Adaptogenic plants have been used in Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines for centuries, they are considered the “Kings and Queens” of herbal medicine, used to restore health and vitality, improve immunity and stamina and even prolong life. Adaptogens also have antioxidant and anti inflammatory actions and they are non toxic.

In clinical practice I use combinations of adaptogenic herbs to build up a patient specific formula. I consider that different herbal adaptogens have different focuses of action, and that by looking at the patient as a whole and as an individual, the practitioner is much more likely to find the correct adaptogen formula for the patient.

There are many herbs that we think of as adaptogens. Some have had much publicity having been adopted by major supplement brands, and others of equal medicinal value are little used outside the herbalist practice.

Some of our most used adaptogens include:

Ashwaganda: Withania somnifera
I consider this a gentle normalising adaptogen, as well as both a food and a medicine. It is a traditional tonic and is one of the best known adaptogen herbs. I use this herb as an anti inflammatory for arthritis, for respiratory disorders involving inflammation, nervous disorders and primarily for all the negative conditions associated with ageing.

Dose: 3 to 6 grams of dried herb in capsule daily or 20-80 drops of tincture in water three times a day.

Caution: seek advice if pregnant. Avoid if sensitive to nightshade family.

Rhodiola: Rhodiola rosea
I consider this to be a calming anti-anxiety adaptogen. It balances both the nervous and the endocrine system. I prefer it to Ginseng in cases of acute stress, considering it to have a more nurturing and supportive action. It supports mental performance and is known to improve physical stamina.  It also supports the immune balance, and has strong anti oxidant actions. It is chemo protective and chemo potentiating. (Note that Rhodiola is also an endangered herb, so seek alternatives wherever possible - speak to your herbalist for some suggestions for your particular case)

Dose: 200-400mg in capsules or 2-5mls daily of a 1:1 fluid extract

Caution: avoid in certain metal health conditions always seek advice if using in cancer care.

Reishi mushrooms: Ganoderma lucidum
Prized as the ‘plant of longevity’, this mushroom is the supreme immune modulator. It also calms the nervous system, is stress reducing and helps to detoxify. I use it for patients with high blood pressure, as a cardiovascular tonic and in cancer management (always seek advice here).

Dose: 2-6 grams of the dried herb or 2-4 mls of the tincture in water 2-3 times daily.

Caution: always seek advice if using in cancer care.


Astragalus: Astragalus membranaceus
This is one of my favourite adaptogen herbs. I think of it as a herb to build vital force and is a herb I use when people are under immunological stress: repeated immune system breakdown, repeated infections and for when someone is feeling generally run down. It supports bone marrow and blood building. It also supports in cancer treatments (always seek advice in cancer cases).

Doses: Powdered dried herb as a decoction, 10-30 grams per day. 4-8mls of tincture per day.

Gotu cola: Centella asiatica
In Ayurveda this herb is used as a general tonic and a brain tonic, with particular emphasis on strengthening the central nervous system. It is specific for wound healing, and can be used as part of a mix for eczema and other skin conditions. I also find it helpful post surgery and for connective tissue disorders and I often use it topically. I think of this as an anti ageing herb.  Also supports cancer treatments (always seek advice in cancer cases).

Dose: Dry herb 3-8 grams daily as a tea. Tincture 5-10 mils daily in water.

Rosemary: Rosmarinus officinalis
Well known as Shakespeare’s herb of remembrance, this is one of the best tonic herbs for the heart, brain and nervous system. I think of this herb as calming and nutritive, with powerful antioxidant properties. Used in lung and bronchial conditions it relaxes spasm and inflammation.

Dose: 3-4 grams (1 teaspoon) per cup of tea daily. Tincture 5-7mls per day in water.

Turmeric: Curcuma longa
This is one of the best examples of a food that is also a medicine. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory, used in arthritic and muscular problems. It also has anti oxidant and antithrombotic actions and is used in cancer support. More and more research is supporting the use of Turmeric in cancer treatments.

Dose: 2-10 grams of root or dried powdered herb cooked in food or as a decoction daily. Fluid extract 2-10mls daily. I use Curcumin C3 standardized extract produced by Sabinsa and add black pepper to improve bio availability of the curcumin.


If you'd like more specific and personalised advice, to build a supportive and sustainable treatment plan with my guidance, go ahead and BOOK AN APPOINTMENT with me.

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