9th December 2017
Stress/strain – again
It has been a long time since my last blog, but life can get in the way of other things. Three lectures to give, a deadline for my book and revalidations. The latter a complete pain that UK doctors have to go through every five years, which means gathering together evidence of all the things I have done, the learning I have learned, the hoops I have jumped through – and suchlike.
Then, my cousin dropped dead of a cerebral haemorrhage. At least he died doing something he enjoyed. He had just holed a putt on a golf course near Edinburgh, when his number came up in the great lottery of life. It reminds me that whatever we know, however much we learn, fate rules us all, and makes a mockery of our belief that we can control everything. ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.’
In this blog, I am going to return to stress, which I prefer to call strain.
Just after writing my last blog someone was kind enough to send me information about a study that had been done, showing that people who are under financial stress are thirteen times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease, and people in stressful jobs are six times as likely to have a heart attack. Not yet published research, but presented at a conference in South Africa. You may have read it1.
As those who have read my blog over the years will know, I have long argued that chronic negative stress is, from a population perspective, the single most important driver of cardiovascular disease. The mind/body connection is key to health, and thus, illness. This, I think I further emphasised by the point that mental illness is associated with the greatest impact on life expectancy.
‘Serious mental illnesses reduce life expectancy by 10 to 20 years, an analysis by Oxford University psychiatrists has shown – a loss of years that’s equivalent to or worse than that for heavy smoking….
…The average reduction in life expectancy in people with bipolar disorder is between nine and 20 years, while it is 10 to 20 years for schizophrenia, between nine and 24 years for drug and alcohol abuse, and around seven to 11 years for recurrent depression.’2
Up to twenty years reduction in life expectancy.
Yes, when your mind goes wrong, your body follows, with disastrous consequences for physical health. Of course, there is overlap between mental illness, drug use, smoking and suchlike. However, you can strip all the other things out, and you are left with the ferocious power of the mind/body connection. The power to nurture, and the power to destroy.
I usually tell anyone, still listening after I have bored them on various other issues, that health is a combination of physical, psychological and social wellbeing. Three overlapping sets. The holy Trinity of wellbeing. You must get them all right, or nothing works. As Plato noted, a few years back, “the part can never be well unless the whole is well.”
Who are the shortest-lived peoples in the world? Are they the poor? Not necessarily, although poverty can be a clear driver of ill-health. The shortest-lived people in the world are people who live in the places of greatest social dislocation. Or, people who have had their societies stripped apart, with massive resultant stress. Australian aboriginals, NZ Maoris, North American aboriginals, the Inuit.
‘Indigenous Australians have the worst life expectancy rates of any indigenous population in the world, a United Nations report says. But it’s not news to Aboriginal health experts. They say it simply confirms what Australian health services have known for years.
Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the Northern Territory (AMSANT) chief executive officer John Paterson said the findings of the report, which examined the indigenous populations of 90 countries, were no surprise. The UN report – State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples – showed indigenous people in Australia and Nepal fared the worst, dying up to 20 years earlier than their non-indigenous counterparts. In Guatemala, the life expectancy gap is 13 years and in New Zealand it is 11.’3
I continue to find it absolutely amazing that mainstream medical thinking casually dismisses mental ‘stress’ as a cause of anything, other than mental health. The connection is always dismissed in the following way.
People who are depressed, anxious, suffering from PTSD and suchlike are more likely to drink and smoke and participate in other unhealthy lifestyles, and it is this that causes their higher rate of CVD and reduced life expectancy, and suchlike. There is a degree of truth to this, but some researchers have looked at this issue and found that the ‘unhealthy lifestyle’ issue explains very little.4
Underlying such an explanation, it has been noted that financial worries can increase your risk of heart disease by thirteen-fold (relative risk). Many of the arguments about CVD currently rage around diet, with people battling about HFLC vs LFHC, [high fat low carb vs low fat high carb].
In all the dietary studies I have seen, we are talking about increased, or reduced, risks in the order of 1.12, or 0.89. Which means a twelve per cent increased risk, or an eleven per cent reduced risk. These figures may just reach statistical significance, but they are so small as to be, to all intents and purposes, completely irrelevant.
On the other hand, a thirteen-fold increase in risk can be written another way. This is a 1,300% increase in risk. Compare this to anything to do with diet, or raised cholesterol, or blood pressure, or blood sugar or – any of the other mainstream risk factors. It is like comparing Mount Everest to a mole hill.
Yet, and yet, attempting to divert attention, and discussion, away from diet, or cholesterol, or sub-fractions of cholesterol, or suchlike seems an impossible task. People may say that they cannot see how stress can cause CVD. To which I say, every single step has been worked out, many times, by many different people.
Chronic stress → dysfunction of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA-axis) → sympathetic overdrive + raised stress hormones → metabolic syndrome (raised BP, raised blood sugar, raised clotting factors, raised cortisol, raised all sorts of things) → endothelial damage + increased blood clotting → plaque formation and death from acute clot formation.
And if you want to close this loop further, stress also increases LDL levels, in some studies by over 60%5. So, when you see raised LDL, in association with increased CVD, it is not the LDL causing the CVD. It is stress, causing both.