Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Can a pill really cure stress?

It used to be that when I met people, and they asked what I did for a living, that I told them I was a nutritionist. Until a few years ago, on a flight back from an eating disorder conference in Washington, DC. I had the window seat and my boss had the aisle seat. The woman in the middle appeared to be excited about her trip to Phoenix, and wanted to chat things up with the two of us. She started with me.

"Are you from Phoenix or DC?"

"I'm on my way home from a conference."

"What was the conference about?"

"Eating disorders. I work in a treatment center."

Without any closure, she physically picked herself up, turned toward my boss, and started the same conversation a second time...only to discover that it went in the exact same direction. She turned her body away from my boss and sat rigidly, staring at the back of the seat in front of her.

Airlines still served meals back then, and when the three of us received ours, I realized that the seating pattern that evening was an anorexic's worst nightmare. It was clear from the way she was manipulating her food, moving it around to look like she'd eaten more than she had, and picking as much fat off of her sandwich as she could, that this young woman had a pretty serious eating disorder.

I felt for her. I knew in the right setting, at the appropriate time, having the two of us to share perspective and compassion with could have been a gift. But not on that day.

I don't talk about eating disorders anymore unless I'm prompted to. I tell people I specialize in stress-related disease. That is, if I'm in the mood to talk. I can't get people to stop talking when they learn that this is my area of interest!

It's the exact same specialty, just a different spin. I help people who manage their stress in ways that can get them into trouble. No one wants to admit they have an eating disorder. But e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e wants a place to unload their stress!

I get to help a lot more people by focusing on the stress instead of its resulting dysfunction. Apparently the drug companies have figured this out, too. (But did you have to read this far into this blog post to figure that out---have you ever seen an ad on the evening news for a drug that successfully helps with bulimia? Erectile dysfunction--yeah, we got a pill for that. Urinary incontinence--yeah, we can help you with that. Starving yourself to death? Sorry, we're just not comfortable going there...too personal!)

It's been proposed for awhile that depression often results when the stress hormone system doesn't properly regulate itself and stress hormones are oversecreted. Scientists recently injected stress hormones into mice and then evaluated what kind of changes they observed. They discovered that stress hormones reduce the ability of the hippocampus (brain's memory center) to generate new cells, which, understandably, over time, reduced hippocampal volume. Acute exposure to stress hormones created more of a "depressed" response in these mice, while prolonged exposure seemed to elicit an "anxious" presentation.

Antidepressant medications administered at the same time the stress hormones were administered prevented these changes.

OK, but instead of waiting until stress is at a point where it's doing damage...what about reducing stress from the source? What about taking on fewer responsibilities? Setting boundaries? Prioritizing sleep? Developing a support system, especially one outside of your work connections? Picking up a hobby? Not buying into the mentality that the harder you work and the less you sleep and the more e-mails you have...the better person you are?

I'm not arguing that the meds aren't a valuable tool. But I do know that people who push themselves to the point where they need medication to undo what stress has done have been out there for a long time pushing themselves before they finally admit maybe they need to do something about it. What about all the oxidative stress and aging and other physical damage that happened on the road to Prozac? We're able to measure some of the things we can reverse with medication...but I sure hope that doesn't leave us falsely reassured that everything we did to ourselves because we didn't want to relax a little bit more can be fixed when we get to that item on our "to do" list.

Murray F, Smith DW, Hutson PH. Chronic low dose corticosterone exposure decreased hippocampal cell proliferation, volume and induced anxiety and depression like behaviours in mice. Eur J Pharmacol. 2008 Mar 31;583(1):115-27.

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