There is a fascinating association between stress and illness.
In 1936, Hans Selye, the founding father of stress studies, published a groundbreaking paper on the long-term consequences of stress in the renowned British journal, Nature.
Selye was the first to conceive – and, brilliantly so – that stress can wreak havoc with our health and that it’s our response to stress that makes all the difference to our bodies. In fact, it is our response to stress that actually is the stress. If we can keep stress from affecting our lives, Selye believed, it ceases to be a problem.
The evidence of stress-induced chemical cascades that Selye proposed so long ago holds good, even today. He suggested that when we’re stressed, neurotransmitters caused a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus to produce a substance called corticotropin-releasing factor [CRF]. This stress substance travels to our hormone factory, the pituitary gland, and signals the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone, another chemical, that warns our bodies about life’s pressures. Finally, this hormone cues the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol and adrenaline. The result? Increased blood sugar, faster heart rate, and higher blood pressure.
Many people, young and old, reach a saturation point, where they can no longer tolerate stress and its effects on the body. Eventually, norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter, becomes depleted, and the immune system gets suppressed.
A study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that psychological stress increases the risk of acute infectious respiratory illness. There is even evidence that stress hurts us at the most basic cellular level. Each of our cells contains a powerhouse called the mitochondrion, which regulates energy production all through the body. In rats, acute stress was found to cause severe mitochondrial damage, illustrating the far-reaching powers of sustained pressure. Even the stress of exercise can have an impact on health, depending on your genetic legacy. It’s also been shown that hard physical activity can lead to a decrease in the synthesis of norepinephrine.
Neurotransmitters, like norepinephrine, can become depleted if our stress levels are excessive. One extreme example of this is chronic fatigue syndrome [CFS]. An epidemic that has reached its highest levels in the last 15-20 years, chronic fatigue syndrome has gone by many names, from chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome [CFIDS] to “the yuppie flu.” Part of the mystery of CFS stems from the fact that we still don’t know what virus causes the syndrome! Epstein-Barr virus, or HHV-6, another member of the herpes family, has been implicated, yes. There is even some speculation that CFS is triggered by what are thought to be “stealth” viruses, which may actually evade our immune system’s powerful surveillance.
Whatever the cause, one thing is certain: CFS is not just fatigue. While most of us have been exceedingly tired at some point in our lives, sleep eventually restores our energy and vitality. For sufferers of CFS, however, there is no such thing as a good night’s sleep. They are constantly plagued with a deep, unrelenting exhaustion that sleep cannot remedy. They have the will and the desire to live a normal life, but their fatigue wears them down. This fatigue interferes with normal life, normal relationships, and our normal day-to-day functioning. CFS has been defined by the Centres for Disease Control [CDC], US, as a set of major and minor criteria – one hallmark being debilitating fatigue lasting at least six months that reduces average daily activity to below 50 per cent. One group of criteria for CFS suggests that hypotension, or abnormally low blood pressure, may be associated [with CFS] in some people.
Many patients suffering from CFS report that stress exacerbates their condition. Clearly, stress is not just a mental dysfunction; it can dismantle the health of the whole body. Patients have come to me hopelessly lethargic, wanting to go out and conquer life but constantly lacking the energy. Whether it be a high-pressure job in which they must consistently perform well, or even just getting the simplest tasks accomplished, stress severely handicaps their abilities.
Causes of Fatigue
There are a number of conditions that can mimic the symptoms of chronic fatigue, such as anaemia, hypothyroidism, candida, lyme, HIV, and clinical depression. These can be ruled out by specific tests – alkaline phosphatase, cholesterol, IgG etc., In addition, allergies, environmental illness, food sensitivities, intestinal dysbiosis, parasitosis, and “sick building syndrome” should all be considered, and if necessary, tested for. For example, fatigue and chest pain in a young male may indicate asthma, or a cardiac condition – if shortness of breath is present. Or, excessive coldness, and/or hair loss may point to a thyroid problem.
Unfortunately, sufferers of CFS have long been stigmatised by the medical community. This disorder is frequently confused with psychiatric conditions such as clinical depression. Questions as to whether chronic fatigue syndrome is, in fact, a psychiatric condition persist to this day, even though studies have shown that they are two separate conditions: The Journal of Psychiatric Research concluded that major depression and seasonal effective disorder [SAD] are not the same illness as chronic fatigue syndrome. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism also found clear differences between CFS and depression. Their findings pointed to a hypothalamic deficiency in chronic fatigue syndrome – a finding not present in clinical depression.
The power of tyrosine
I have found that there is a nutrient so important to energy and stamina that the US military was conducting studies on its benefits. This nutrient is tyrosine. In fact, tyrosine may be the natural antidote to today’s fast-paced lifestyle. Of all the supplements I study and prescribe in my practice, tyrosine is one of my absolute favourites. With its help, I’ve seen people emerge from the fog of depression, handle stress better, and generally improve their condition.
Tyrosine is an amino acid – a building block for protein – that is found in every day dairy products such as cheese and milk, and meats such as chicken and turkey. While all of the 20-odd amino acids that form our bodily proteins serve as building blocks for the brain, tyrosine plays an especially important role in keeping the nervous system alive and running. Just like two other amino acids, tryptophan [found in milk] and phenylalanine [found in the sugar substitute, aspartame], tyrosine is known as an “aromatic” amino acid and has a special ring structure shaped like a hexagon. Unlike non-aromatic amino acids, any dietary tyrosine we consume is readily absorbed into our brains. This quality allows tyrosine the heady power to tinker with our moods, feelings, emotions, and cognitive abilities.
Tyrosine is the precursor of three of the most crucial neurotransmitters used as chemical messengers by the neuronal cells that wire our brains: dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine [also known as adrenaline]. The life-changing power of anti-depressant drugs is often due to their ability to increase both dopamine and norepinephrine. Though the role of norepinephrine is subtle, it is absolutely necessary for preparing our bodies for the fight-or-flight reaction. It conserves energy and stimulates adrenaline release. A study in Military Medical Journal shows that intensely stressful situations, like fighting in a war, can use up our stores of norepinephrine. Tyrosine not only restores low levels of norepinephrine, but also improves performance and cognitive functioning during times of extreme pressure.
Studies of human subjects at high altitudes and freezing temperatures show that tyrosine supplements prevent the learning, motor, and memory difficulties that usually arise in stressful environments. Second, tyrosine is a source of energy. A study on lab animals showed that tyrosine renewed both enthusiasm and motivation normally eliminated by stressful surroundings. Similar research has shown that tyrosine can restore significant amounts of energy to sufferers of chronic fatigue syndrome and dysthymia – depression that is not as severe as full-blown clinical depression – by acting as a natural stimulant.
This brain-boosting nutrient can also be useful as an analgesic and as a potential treatment for disorders like narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder caused by the brain’s inability to regulate sleep-wake cycles, normally. This is not all. Tyrosine may even help ameliorate post-menopausal distress.
It Happens in the Brain
How can a single amino acid, like tyrosine, affect memory, mood, concentration, and energy? It all begins in the brain. Our bodies are wired with a complex network of hundreds of billions of interconnecting cells called neurons, which take information from the outside world and relay it to our central command centre, the brain. The brain is responsible for integrating and making sense of all the sounds, sights, smells, and data rushing in from the world and translating them into the movements we make and the emotions we feel.
Neurons, like living computer chips, send messages through our nervous system in two forms: electrical impulses, which shoot signals down the length of a neuron, and chemical messengers, which carry these signals between cells. These chemical messengers are known as neurotransmitters, and the trillions of notes they send through the brain every second make them amazingly fast purveyors of information.
Our brain’s instantaneous co-ordination of the over 50 known or suspected neurotransmitters is crucial. Each neurotransmitter has its own unique character and can pass news on only to neurons that have receptors fitting its chemical shape. Some excite the brain while others calm it and diminish the impact of their chemical counterparts.
A lot of what we know about the importance of these chemicals, unfortunately, comes from what happens to people who are lacking these important messengers. Dopamine, for example, helps regulate movement and is also a profound pleasure chemical that helps us fall in love, savour a chocolate fudge sundae, or set and achieve goals. But, it can also trigger addictive behaviour. The degeneration of dopamine-using neurons in the brain can lead to Parkinson’s disease – a terrifying illness that inhibits our conscious ability to initiate, sustain, or terminate movement. Too little dopamine in certain centres of the brain may lead to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], or depression.
For people who are stressed, norepinephrine is a crucial neurotransmitter. When you are walking alone down a dark alley and hear footsteps close behind you, your heart begins to pound, you breathe rapidly and shallowly, and you feel suddenly alert. Your body has just released a flood of stress hormones, including norepinephrine. This response to stress shuts off normal processes like digestion and immune response in order to save energy for fighting off – or, fleeing – the alley prowler. Unfortunately, constant stress can use up necessary norepinephrine levels. This is where tyrosine, as a building block for norepinephrine, is so valuable.
Tyrosine can be a great energy booster and stress reliever. It works best, however, when norepinephrine levels are low in the body. If you prefer to use tyrosine supplements to give you energy, speak to your therapist today.