October 21, 2023 Editor

Stress is weathering our bodies from the inside out

and Charlotte Gomez

Oct. 17, 2023

image above:

WN: At once fascinating and utterly tragic. . .

excerpts:

Physicians and public health experts have pointed to one culprit time and again when asked why Americans live shorter lives than peers in nations with similar resources, especially people felled by chronic diseases in the prime of life: stress.

A cardiologist, endocrinologist, obesity specialist, health economist and social epidemiologists all said versions of the same thing: Striving to get ahead in an unequal society contributes to people in the United States aging quicker, becoming sicker and dying younger.

Recent polls show adults are stressed by factors beyond their control, including inflation, violence, politics and race relations. A spring Washington Post-Ipsos poll found 50 percent of Americans said not having enough income was a source of financial stress; 55 percent said not having enough savings was also a source of stress.

“We should take a step back and look at the society we’re living in and how that is actually determining our stress levels, our fatigue levels, our despair levels,” said Elizabeth H. Bradley, president of Vassar College and co-author of the book “The American Health Care Paradox.” “That’s for everybody. Health is influenced very much by these factors, so that’s why we were talking about a reconceptualization of health.”

The Washington Post’s efforts to gain a deeper understanding of how stress can cause illness, disability and shorter lives led to a once derided body of research that has become part of the mainstream discussion about improving America’s health: the Weathering Hypothesis.

Struggling and striving

It’s part of the weathering process, a theory first suggested by Arline T. Geronimus, a professor and population health equity researcher at the University of Michigan.

Geronimus, whose book “Weathering: The Extraordinary Stress of Ordinary Life in an Unjust Society” published in March, started out studying the health of women and babies as a graduate student in the 1980s, having been influenced by two distinctly different jobs she had as an undergraduate: one as an on-campus research assistant, the other as a peer companion at an off-campus school for teen mothers.

At the time, she said, conventional wisdom held that the Black community had higher rates of infant mortality because teen mothers were physically and psychosocially too immature to have healthy babies. But her research showed younger Black women had better pregnancy and birth outcomes than Black mothers in their mid- to late 20s and 30s.

For this, she was criticized as someone arguing in favor of teen pregnancy, even though she was not. Shaken but undeterred, she continued trying to understand the phenomenon, which meant better understanding the overall health of the community these teens depended on for help. As she studied those networks, she recognized “people’s life expectancies were shorter, and they were getting all these chronic diseases at young ages,” she said.

But she hadn’t come up with a name yet for what she was witnessing. That happened in the early 1990s while sitting in her office: “‘Weathering’ struck me as the perfect word.”

She said she was trying to capture two things. First, that people’s varied life experiences affect their health by wearing down their bodies. And second, she said: “People are not just passive victims of these horrible exposures. They withstand them. They struggle against them. These are people who weather storms.”

People seem to instinctively understand the first, but she said they often overlook the second. It isn’t just living in an unequal society that makes people sick. It’s the day-in, day-out effort of trying to be equal that wears bodies down.

Weathering, she said, helps explain the double-edged sword of “high-effort coping.”

Over the years, Geronimus widened the aperture of her research to include immigrants, Latinos, the LGBTQIA community, poor White people from Appalachia. She found that while weathering is a universal human physiological process, it happens more often in marginalized populations.

Regulation of cortisol — what we think of as the body’s main stress hormone — is disrupted. Optimally, it should work like a wave with a steep morning rise followed by a rapid decline, which slows until reaching baseline at bedtime.

But existing research suggests that is blunted by repeated exposure to psychosocial and environmental stressors, such as perceived racial discrimination, which flatten this rhythm.

Stress-induced high cortisol levels stimulate appetite by triggering the release of ghrelin, a peptide that stimulates hunger.

The interplay between elevated cortisol and glucose is especially complex and insidious, eventually leading to obesity, fatigue, cardiovascular disease, poor immune and inflammatory functions, higher breast cancer mortality rates and other metabolic disorders. Dysregulated cortisol also increases depression and anxiety and interferes with sleep.

Weathering doesn’t start in middle age.

The female figure and center of the image is a yellow silhouette of a baby, head down in utero. Female is standing in front of a green background.

It begins in the womb. Cortisol released into a pregnant person’s bloodstream crosses the placenta, which helps explain why a disproportionate number of babies born to parents who live in impoverished communities or who experience the constant scorn of discrimination are preterm and too small.

There is also this tragic related phenomenon:

Killing from the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War.

Please click on: The Weathering Hypothesis

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Editor

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.