Stress and what it does to you

There is a long list of jobs and careers which will cause stress at different levels. And surely “academic jobs” are somewhere on this list. You can find an increasing number of articles testifying that stress related mental illnesses are raising in academia [1,2,3,4,5,6]. There are numerous ways in which stress affect your mental health and your body [7]. And you probably already have experienced muscles tension, maybe difficulties to breath, or high blood pressure, and gastrointestinal problems.

In “The story of the Human Body”, D. Lieberman, professor of Biological science (Harvard University), presents some of the most common illness in modern society as “mismatch diseases” (see [8] for a review and [9] for an interview of the author on NPR). In short, “mismatch diseases”  appeared because humans (modern humans in particular) have to deal with two different processes each of them characterised by two very different dynamics. On one side, humans interact with a fast evolving environment (new way of lifes, work and exercise habits, diets  … ). On the other side, we are the result of an extremely slow evolutionary process which has lead to make us as energy efficient and fertile as possible.

In his book, D. Lieberman does a particularly good job in explaining how stress affects you, your diet and your weight. First, let us mention that stress or the ability to stress was surely, from an evolutionary perspective, a good thing. At some point in our history, stress was a mechanism to keep you alive in dangerous circumstances. Nowadays the problem is that some people feel stressed on a daily basis. Stress will cause the activation of your adrenal glands [10] which secrete small doses of cortisone. Cortisone is an hormone [11], which gives you “instant energy”, by pushing your body to release glucose into your blood. This leads to an increase of your heart rate and blood pressure. It also makes you more alert and inhibits sleep. In addition, it will make you crave food rich in energy. As you eat more, your insulin [12] levels is increasing which leads to promote fat storage. In addition, insulin inhibit the response to leptin [13] (another hormone) which signal satiety. So you feel hungry more often. Moreover, if stress keeps you from sleeping, you should know that sleep depravation leads to an elevated level of gherkin [14] (again an hormone), which stimulate appetite.  Finally, research have shown that people who sleep less have higher ghrelin levels and are more likely to be overweight [Beccuti,G and S. Pannain (2011), “Sleep and Obesity” in Current Opinions in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care 14: 402-12].

Morality, as we are all sitting behind our desk, we should take time to stress a little more about the stress level we are willing to deal with. Remember that we have control over our work-life balance and that an ideal balance surely exists for each of us [15,16,17,18] .

 

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