Karolina Mikos, MD
Internist and Holistic Healer
Stress has been shown to be one of the most damaging factors to our health, as it suppresses our immune system and thus lowers our innate ability to fight off disease, including cancer. Everybody produces cancer cells on a daily basis due to normally occurring errors in DNA replication, but these cells get recognized and destroyed daily by our innate immune cells. But if our immune system is weak, it does not have a fighting chance to clear out those daily “mistake cells”, thus allowing them to grow and multiply, and over a prolonged period of time, they result in cancer. So, how does stress work?
THE PHYSIOLOGY OF STRESS - A BRIEF OVERVIEW
Our autonomic nervous system, which is the nervous system outside of our conscious control, is divided into two opposing branches: the sympathetic, which is our nervous system “accelerator”, or the classic fight or flight response, and the parasympathetic, which is our nervous system “break”, or the rest and digest response. At any given time, our body is either in sympathetic mode or parasympathetic mode. Our bodies are designed to reside in the harmonious parasympathetic system the majority of the time, which gives time for the body to digest food, relax, and produce disease-fighting immune cells. But our bodies are ready to switch to the fighter sympathetic mode instantaneously if the brain perceives a threat to our survival.
When a threat is perceived - evolutionarily the proverbial tiger chasing us - our body immediately shuts down the parasympathetic and turns on the survival mechanism, the sympathetic response, to give us a chance to “fight” the tiger, or run (“flight”) away from the tiger. This activates a series of hormonal cascades originating from the supercomputer system of the brain called the hypothalamus, which causes, for example, increased heart rate and blood pressure to give us the energy to run or fight, but it also shuts down the natural immune response, because the body’s priority is to run away from the tiger rather than fight off any potential viruses or “mistake” cells. After the tiger (the threat) is no longer present, the body gets a chance to shake off the excess energy and return to the harmonious parasympathetic, or rest and digest state (the break of the nervous system).
In today’s modern society, however, the threats that our brain perceives are no longer limited to the animals chasing us. Common aspects of our daily lives have begun to elicit survival mechanisms as if we were constantly chased by that tiger, because our brain cannot distinguish between “real” (the tiger) and “perceived” threats, such as constant emails from work, traffic when we’re in a rush to get to an appointment on time, a fight with a spouse, etc.
To make matters worse, the supercomputer in our brains (the hypothalamus) that is responsible for the stress response ALSO processes emotions! So that anger, fear, and anxiety, for example, also activate that same part of the brain to start the stress response cascade. This causes us to constantly elicit the stress response, i.e. we’re chronically in the “accelerator” mode of our nervous system, which shuts down the immune response, making our bodies unable to produce the immune cells necessary for self-healing and repair.
So, how do we strengthen our immune system? By lowering the stress response mediated by the sympathetic nervous system and increasing the relaxation response by the parasympathetic.
METHODS TO REDUCE THE STRESS RESPONSE:
There is nothing quicker and more efficient to relieve stress than body movement.
After animals respond to threats in their environment and their threat is no longer present, they shake off their excess energy to release the stress hormones. They thus enter the relaxation response and then go about their day like nothing ever happened. Movement oxygenates our body, uses up the cortisol and adrenaline built up during the stress response, and helps release good feel hormones such as endorphins.
Exercise doesn’t have to mean running a marathon or going to the gym every day, but a daily sustainable body movement practice is key: go for a walk, dance, take the stairs rather than the elevator, start yoga or Tai Chi practice, play with your kids, join a sports league…
The possibilities are endless!
The first and most important action we can take anywhere and anytime is to BREATHE!
The breath is our Life Force. Conscious breathing is giving your breath your full undivided attention, where you focus on the air that enters through your nose, following it down into your lungs, holding it for a second or so to feel the fresh oxygen bathing your organs, and then fully exhaling all the air you no longer need, following it from your lungs, back up your windpipe and back out your nose or your mouth. And THIS is meditation. Anyone can do it!
Each time we stop and take a conscious breath (or meditate) we interrupt the brain pathways that keep firing the sympathetic stress response and allow ourselves to reconnect to our inner consciousness. This disruption is beneficial even if done once. But we are creatures of habit, therefore our habitual brain pathways do not get interrupted significantly after just a one-time “dose”, and require repetition to rewire the brain and sustain the relaxation response.
It takes 21 days to form a new habit. So start by taking even one minute a day to consciously connect with your breath, and continue for 21 days. You may also increase the amount of time you consciously breathe from one minute a day, to five, to ten, and so on until your new habit is firmly established.
Reduce environmental and food toxins
The quality of the food we eat has deteriorated exponentially over the past several decades.
We used to eat pesticide-free food from our farms and antibiotic-free meat from animals that we raised. But in our modern world, everything we eat is mass-produced to maximize profit, NOT our well-being.
Highly processed foods that we find on our grocery store shelves today have a hard time being digested by our bodies, which are biologically engineered to metabolize food sourced directly from nature. When we eat processed and non-sustainable grown foods, our bodies do not recognize the chemical composition of these compounds, which differ from nature-derived, fresh, organically grown nutrients. Since the human body is unable to metabolize these foreign substances into the building blocks that it needs, it stores them into cells that become poorly organized, which become more commonly known as cancer cells.
Of note, sugar (glucose) is probably the worst “toxin” for our bodies, especially for cancer patients. Research shows that cancer cells consume between 10 to 50 times more glucose than normal cells! So eat food that is as close to its natural form as possible.
Similarly, our environment is filled with unknown toxins that our ancestors from as little as 50 years ago were not exposed to. For example, have you ever tried to read the ingredients on the label of your dish soap? Or on your shampoo bottle? Or on the lotion, you put on your body every day, which gets absorbed by the largest organ of your body – your skin? Or worse, in your deodorant or perfume bottle?
In our consumerist, profit-driven society, we are told that we need a different soap for each body part, a different detergent for each angle of our home, or even different products for different stages of life (such as baby shampoo vs the more “toxin-filled?” adult shampoo).
Unfortunately, these products just expose us to chemicals that we absorb through our skin or through our nose directly into the brain, and because our cells are not meant to absorb foreign substances in such high amounts and on a daily basis, they become stressed and cause errors in cell metabolism and repair.
The safest way to prevent exposure to all these unknown compounds is to buy the least amount of products possible or make your own. Many cleaning and personal care products can be easily made from ingredients you already have in your kitchen cabinet. They’re safe, edible, and may even smell delicious!
Surround yourself with loving relationships
Studies show that lonely people die younger. Why? Loneliness triggers the stress response, in turn decreasing the immune system and making us susceptible to illness. You do not need to be in a romantic partnership to decrease stress. Friends, family, a safe community, and anyone who is supportive of you, such as your therapist or even your doctor, matter too!
Equally as important, the QUALITY of the relationship matters. Toxic relationships, whether romantic or friendships are more stress-eliciting than being alone, so choose your friends and partners wisely!
Increase positive emotions
Studies also show that happy people live longer! A positive attitude has been linked to stress reduction. In the same way that strong emotions such as fear or anger elicit the stress response in the brain, when the hypothalamus perceives joy, happiness, or love, the parasympathetic nervous system turns on, allowing for the relaxation response.
Seeing the glass half full is not always easy, but just like meditation, it is a daily practice that can become a habit if we are persistent enough, especially in the beginning phases of this new habit formation.
So be kind, be joyous, be grateful, and your stress will dissolve before your eyes. Surround yourself with like-minded people, make new friends, join a community, share your life with others, and have fun!
Learn about Cannabis/ Medical Marijuana
It is worth mentioning that cannabis, a “new” player on the block, albeit controversial, is gaining traction in the medical world for all ailments, including cancer management.
Cannabis has been feared worldwide due to the prohibition, which started in the United States in the 1940s for political and racial reasons despite the American Medical Association’s support of its medical benefits, which have been known and implemented for thousands of years all over the world.
Mounting evidence now supports the use of medical marijuana not only for decreasing symptoms of nausea, vomiting, anxiety, and anorexia in cancer patients but also in fighting cancer itself. As Dr. Abrams, MD describes in his article Integrating Cannabis into Clinical Cancer Care, “Preclinical data suggest that cannabinoids could have direct antitumor activity.” Cannabis not only reduces stress thanks to its anti-anxiety properties but because it is emerging as a new potential “cure” for cancer, it deserves mentioning as a new disruptive therapy in cancer management.
I would like to thank Marta Majewska for brilliantly translating this document to Polish at a moment’s notice while traveling to assist her own family member with their cancer diagnosis. I am forever grateful soul sister.
Further reading and resources
Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds by Kelly Turner
Polish translation: Czy mozna wygrac z rakiem? 9 kluczowych zasad wspierania walki z nowotworem – Kelly Turner Radicalremission.com
Abrams, D.I, MD. Integrating Cannabis into Clinical Cancer Care. Current Oncology.2016 Mar;23(S2):S8-S14