STRESS AND THE NEUROTRANSMITTERS

Since Selye’s research, scientists have found that stress provokes a number of even subtler chemical changes in the body which may have profound physical and mental health effects. For example, medical researchers are now certain that stress triggers chemical changes in the brain. Particularly sensitive to such emotional strains are the concentrations of potent chemicals called neurotransmitters. These act as messengers between nerve cells. They include: serotonin, epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), acetylcholine and dopamine. In a Stanford University study, rats were forced to swim in 4 degree C water for three minutes. Later examination of their brain tissue showed that levels of norepinephrine had fallen 20 per cent and epinephrine between 30 and 40 per cent. Scientists have also discovered that the body produces its own painkillers, morphine-like chemicals called endorphins. Stress boosts the production of these analgesics, thus raising the pain threshold.

Because stress alters the body’s chemical balance, it seems to influence the development of many diseases,including psychiatric disorders. Depression has also been associated with low levels of two neurotransmitters — serotonin and norepinephrine.

Stress has been found to severely affect the body’s immune system. Researchers have also discovered that chronic stress inhibits the body’s production of its own cancer-fighting cells, including natural killer cells, T-lymphocytes and macrophages. A remarkable chemical triggers the body’s stress reactions — corticotropin releasing factor (RTF), which is produced in the hypothalamus, a powerful but tiny structure sometimes called the brain’s ‘brain’.

Research with animals has shown that.stressful stimuli can be less damaging when regulated. Being in control of the situation seems to make all the difference.

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