Hans Selye, MD (1907-1982) pioneered research into something called stress. As with so many discoveries of science and medicine, it was by chance that Hungarian-born Selye stumbled upon the idea of General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which he first wrote about in 1936. In GAS, Selye explained, the body passes through three universal stages of coping:
Stage 1: Alarm Reaction
The first stage of the general adaptation stage, the alarm reaction, is the immediate reaction to a stressor. In the initial phase of stress, humans exhibit a “fight or flight” response, which prepares the body for physical activity. However, this initial response can also decrease the effectiveness of the immune system, making persons more susceptible to illness during this phase.
Stage 2: Stage of Resistance
Stage 2 might also be named the stage of adaptation, instead of the stage of resistance. During this phase, if the stress continues, the body adapts to the stressors it is exposed to. Changes at many levels take place in order to reduce the effect of the stressor. For example, if the stressor is starvation (possibly due to anorexia), the person might experienced a reduced desire for physical activity to conserve energy, and the absorption of nutrients from food might be maximized.
“…stress is not a vague concept, somehow related to the decline in the influence of traditional codes of behavior, dissatisfaction with the world, or the rising cost of living, but rather that it is clearly a definable biological and medical phenomenon whose mechanisms can be objectively identified and with which we can cope much better once we know how to handle it. – Hans Selye, MD”
Stage 3: Stage of Exhaustion
At this stage, the stress has continued for some time. The body’s resistance to the stress may gradually be reduced, or may collapse quickly. Generally, this means the immune system, and the body’s ability to resist disease, may be almost totally eliminated. Patients who experience long-term stress may succumb to heart attacks or severe infection due to their reduced immunity. For example, a person with a stressful job may experience long-term stress that might lead to high blood pressure and an eventual heart attack.
Stress, in Selye’s lexicon, could be anything from prolonged food deprivation to the loss of a loved one, to a parasite infection. Selye’s breakthrough ideas about stress helped to forge an entirely new medical field – the study of biological stress and its effects – which blossomed through the middle part of the twentieth century to include the work of thousands of researchers, and it is a science that continues to make advances today by connecting stress to illness and discovering new ways to help the body efficiently deal with life’s wear and tear.
It is his profound legacy that leads us to the specific roles of the HPA glands and the hormones cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in the context of chronic stress. A chronic imbalance between HPA stimulation and cortisol and/or DHEA output is associated with a multitude of both clinical and subclinical disorders.
All this talk about stress and HPA glands is fascinating, but wouldn’t you rather just get tested?