Brain Chemical Messengers
The exciting discoveries began in the spring of 1977. Tools had been discovered. Tools that were enabling scientists to penetrate the very interior of single nerve cells in the brain. Important discoveries were being made almost daily about the inner workings of the brain. We now know that vital chemicals carry messages between brain cells. In essence, they allow brain cells to "talk to" one another.
On a typical day in the brain, trillions of messages are sent and received.
The messages that are happy, up beat messages are carried by the brain's "HAPPY MESSENGERS" (technically known as Biogenic Amine/Endorphin System).
Other messages are somber and quieting. They are carried by the brain's "SAD MESSENGERS".
Most nerve centers receive input from both types of messengers. As long as this input is balanced, everything runs along on an even keel.
Stress, however, causes problems with the brain's Happy Messengers. When life is smooth, the happy messages keep up with demand. But when too much stress is placed on the brain, the Happy Messengers begin to fall behind on their deliveries. As the stress continues, the happy messages begin to fail. Important nerve centers then receive mostly SAD MESSAGES, and the whole brain becomes distressed.
The person enters a state of brain chemical imbalance known as -- OVERSTRESS.
OVERSTRESS makes people feel terrible. With SAD MESSAGES overwhelming the happy messages, a person feels "overwhelmed" by life. People complain of being tired, unable to fall asleep or to obtain a restful night's sleep. They have plagues of aches and pains, lack of energy, lack of enjoyment of life. They feel depressed, anxious, or just unable to cope with life.
Low Stress Tolerance -- The Inherited Factor
Everyone inherits a certain ability to make and use Happy Messengers in the brain. As long as you can make enough Happy Messengers to keep up with the stress in your life, you will find stress to be fun, exciting, enjoyable, challenging. In fact, without it you would be bored.
However, when the amount of stress in your life is so great that you begin to run out of Happy Messengers, then bad things begin to happen. You may have sleep disturbances, aches and pains, lack of enjoyment of life and even panic attacks.
The amount of stress that you can tolerate before your Happy Messengers malfunction is referred to as your "Stress Tolerance".
Your Stress Tolerance is set by your genetic inheritance. Most of us have inherited sufficient Stress Tolerance to allow us to weather the stresses of daily living. We still feel well and enjoy life. Yet, each of us, at some time has experienced short periods of brain chemical imbalance.
The night you couldn't sleep before your big test at school, or your important job interview, or your "fabulous date"...
The sadness and crying you may have felt when a friend or relative passed away, or a girlfriend or boyfriend left...
The chest pains or the headaches that you may have thought were heart problems or migraine, but your doctor said came from too much stress and strain...
WE HAVE ALL EXPERIENCED SUCH BRIEF EPISODES OF HAPPY MESSENGER MALFUNCTION. BUT, FULLY 10% OF OUR POPULATION FEELS LIKE THIS ALL OF THE TIME!
You see, one in ten persons has inherited a LOW STRESS TOLERANCE.
This means that his/her Happy Messengers "poop out" at stress levels which the rest of us would consider "normal, everyday stress." The result of inheriting such a Low Stress Tolerance may be a disaster. Such a person will be operating his or her life in practically permanent OVERSTRESS.
Sleep disturbances, aches and pains, fatigue, depressions, mood swings, anxiety attacks, and even drug addiction can become life long problems.
Since one in ten persons have inherited a Low Stress Tolerance, we are describing an enormous number of people.
Ten percent of your friends, your acquaintances, your employees, your co-workers, your employers... everywhere around you there are persons who are not able to cope with the stress of daily life.
To understand how stress results in this disastrous condition for so many people, let us begin by examining the brain's HAPPY MESSENGERS.
Three Happy Messengers
There are three Happy Messengers: SEROTONIN, NORADRENALIN, and DOPAMINE. These are the brain chemicals that begin to malfunction when stress levels become more than a person can handle.
SEROTONIN LETS YOU SLEEP
The Happy Messenger, Serotonin, must work properly in order for you to sleep well. Serotonin is responsible for making sure that your body's physiology is set for sleeping. If Serotonin does not do its job properly, you will not be able to obtain a restful sleep, no matter how hard you try.
SEROTONIN SETS YOUR BODY CLOCK
Inside every one of our brains is a very accurate "Clock". This time keeping apparatus functions like the conductor of a symphony orchestra. Just as the conductor of the orchestra keeps all the various instruments playing in rhythm, so the Body Clock keeps all the various functions of your body coordinated, and moving to the same rhythm.
The Body Clock is located deep in the center of the brain, in a little group of cells known as the Pineal Gland. Within the Pineal Gland is a store-house of the messenger Serotonin, which is the chemical "mainspring" of the Clock. Each day the Serotonin is chemically converted to a related compound, Melatonin; and then the Melatonin is converted right back to Serotonin. The whole cycle from Serotonin to Melatonin and back to Serotonin takes exactly 25 hours -- and this forms your Body's Clock.
Twenty five hours? Yes, under experimental conditions of an unchanging environment, such as in a cave kept at a constant level of illumination for weeks on end, this Body Clock cycles every 25 hours. If, however, a person is exposed to a natural outdoor cycle of daylight and darkness, the Pineal Gland will automatically set itself to a 24 hour day.
That is, the Pineal Gland will automatically match its cycle to the length of one Earth's day. That way, noon in the Pineal Gland is always noon on Earth. If exposed to daylight, the Pineal Gland will neither gain nor lose time, but will always cycle exactly in concert with the Earth as our planet twirls through space. The whole process of setting the Body Clock to Earth time takes about three weeks.
The 24 hour cycling of the Body Clock is important. It adjusts your body chemistry for sleeping and for waking. Every evening your Body Clock will set your physiology for sleeping; then you feel drowsy and sleep soundly. After a while, your Body Clock adjusts your physiology for waking. You then wake up and feel refreshed.
We mentioned that the Body Clock is the coordinator of your physiologic orchestra. Three important players in that orchestra are your body temperature, stress fighting hormone, and sleep cycles. Each of these must be properly coordinated by the Body Clock in order for you to sleep soundly, and awake feeling rested.
THE BODY CLOCK AND YOUR BODY TEMPERATURE
Every 24 hours, your body temperature cycles from high to low, varying by as much as one degree. When it is time to wake up and be active, your body temperature rises slightly. When it is time to fall asleep, your body temperature dips slightly. Most of us have felt how difficult it is to fall asleep on a very warm night, when you toss and turn and wish you could cool off. Contrast this with the relative comfort when one is tucked in a nice bed in a room that is slightly cool, or even downright cold. To achieve the best sleep, the body thermostat is supposed to lower slightly at night, a timing which is coordinated by your Body Clock.
THE BODY CLOCK AND YOUR STRESS FIGHTING HORMONE
The body has a vital hormone called Cortisol, which is the body's chief stress fighting hormone. When Cortisol secretion is high, the body shifts to a "war footing". It is prepared for stress conditions such as hunger, trauma, hemorrhage, fighting, or running. Ordinarily, one's Cortisol drops substantially in the evening, as one relaxes, settles down, and prepares for sleep.
As with body temperature, the ups and downs of your stress fighting hormone must cycle properly during a 24 hour day for you to achieve a restful night's sleep and awake refreshed. Any disruption of your Cortisol cycle, and restful sleep will become very difficult.
THE BODY CLOCK AND YOUR SLEEP CYCLES
After falling asleep, one normally goes DEEPER and DEEPER into sleep, finally reaching a state of deep restorative sleep. Then sleep becomes LIGHTER and LIGHTER until one enters dreaming sleep. Then the whole cycle begins over again. About every 90 minutes one goes through this cycle. In the early part of the evening the cycle pauses a relatively long time in the deepest restorative phase. As the evening progresses, the amount of time spent in deep restorative sleep lessens, and one spends more and more time dreaming. In order for one to feel rested, this sleep pattern must be cycling properly. And, of course, the cycle is regulated by your internal Body Clock.
STRESS DESTROYS YOUR SLEEP
The Body Clock is essential for the proper harmony of your body temperature, stress fighting hormone, and sleep cycles. In order to fall asleep easily, sleep soundly, and awake refreshed, your Body Clock must be functioning properly. The Happy Messenger, Serotonin, is the "mainspring" of the Body Clock. If stress causes Serotonin to fail, the Body Clock will stop working. You will not be able to obtain a restful sleep, no matter how hard you try.
SINCE SEROTONIN IS USUALLY THE FIRST HAPPY MESSENGER TO FAIL UNDER STRESS, THE FIRST SIGN OF OVERSTRESS WILL USUALLY BE INABILITY TO OBTAIN A RESTFUL SLEEP.
Noradrenalin: Giving Us Energy
I am sure you have all heard of "Adrenalin". When you are frightened, Adrenalin is released into your blood stream by your adrenal glands. Your heart beats faster, blood flow is shunted away from your skin and intestines and towards your muscles. Perspiration appears on your palms and forehead. You are ready for "fight or flight". A cousin of Adrenalin, named Noradrenalin is one of the Happy Messengers. Noradrenalin has many important functions in the body's nervous system. The one that most concerns us here, however, is the role of Noradrenalin in setting your energy levels. Proper functioning of Noradrenalin in the brain is essential for you to feel energized. Without enough brain Noradrenalin you feel exhausted, tired, droopy and without energy. You just don't feel like doing anything. You just want to sit.
People with Noradrenalin failure become progressively more and more lethargic. They do not seem to have any energy to do anything. Running your brain with low Noradrenalin is akin to running your car with a failing battery. Sooner or later, it just won't start.
Dopamine: Your Pleasure and Your Pain
As you probably know, morphine and heroin are the most potent pain relieving and pleasure producing medications known to man. They are so potent in fact, that they were long believed to mimic some unknown, but naturally occurring, body chemical. A recent technological advance has led to the remarkable uncovering of natural morphine-like molecules that are, indeed, made in each of our brains.
Collectively, these substances are known as ENDORPHINS, and they are responsible for regulating our moment to moment awareness of pain.
It appears that in the discovery of Endorphins we have found our body's naturally occurring mechanism for regulating pain. It is likely that a certain baseline secretion of Endorphin occurs at all times in the body. Under certain conditions, this Endorphin secretion may rise, making the person relatively insensitive to pain. Under other conditions, the Endorphin levels may drop, making a person more sensitive than usual to pain.
Individual variations of Endorphin level would explain the observation that people may react with differing levels of perceived pain when suffering the same painful stimulus. In medical practice it is quite common to see one person with an injury have very little discomfort, while another person with a very similar injury has terrible discomfort. In the past we have said that such unusual suffering was "all in the person's head".
Now we may speculate that what is different in that person's head is the Endorphin level. Hence, the person who seems to have an unusual amount of discomfort from what appears to be a trivial injury, probably is feeling more pain. For some reason, his body's own pain control mechanism has been depleted of Endorphins.
Now, our third Happy Messenger, Dopamine, seems to be concentrated in areas of the brain immediately adjacent to where the major Endorphin releasing mechanisms lie. When Dopamine function declines, Endorphin function also declines. Hence, when too much stress causes failure of Dopamine function, it also causes loss of your body's natural "pain killer".
Dopamine also runs your body's "Pleasure Center". This is the area of your brain that allows you to enjoy life. When stress interferes with your Dopamine function, the Pleasure Center becomes inoperative. Normally pleasureful activities no longer give any pleasure. With severe Dopamine/Endorphin malfunction, life becomes painful and devoid of any pleasure.
WHAT OVERSTRESS FEELS LIKE
When your stress level is high enough to cause failure of your Happy Messengers, what is going to happen to you? What will you feel like?
If your total stress load is high enough to interfere with your brain's Happy Messengers, then your Body Clock is going to stop working. You will find yourself having difficulty falling asleep, and frequent awakenings during the night, perhaps with vivid dreams. When morning rolls around, you will not feel at all rested.
Next, you will note lack of energy, lack of desire to get out and do things, lack of interest in the outside world.
Next, you will have aches and pains. Particularly common are chest, shoulder, back and neck pains. But, it will seem like you are aware of vague, uncomfortable feelings from all over your body.
Along with increased sensitivity to aches and pains, there is a decreased sense of pleasure in life. Things that used to be fun or pleasurable do not seem enjoyable anymore.
When all of these symptoms coincide--lack of sleep, fatigue, aches and pains--you feel that life is not enjoyable anymore. You feel overwhelmed by life. Now you may cry easily, and feelthat you are "depressed".
You may also feel quite anxious. All these strange changes in your body. Why can't I sleep? Why do I ache all the time? Am I having a heart attack? What is happening to me? It is not uncommon for persons who are experiencing the strange changes in their body caused by Happy Messenger failure to have periods of panic. It is during these so-called "panic attacks" that you feel as if you can not catch your breath. The heart races in panic, the muscles ache and pain all over the chest. You may even get light-headed. You may have stomach upset and diarrhea. Stress has caused your body to behave in strange and difficult ways. Under these circumstances, anxiety and fear are not at all unexpected.
All of us have experienced some periods of OVERSTRESS in our lives. Usually they will be of short duration. We live in such a high stress society, however, that at least TEN PERCENT OF OUR POPULATION IS IN OVERSTRESS ALL THE TIME!
These people, who have inherited a Low Stress Tolerance, are fighting against Happy Messenger failure every day of their lives. It rarely stops; and they are sorely afflicted.
In the past, we did not know the cause of this suffering. Such persons were often said to have a "mental illness". The medical world now recognizes these symptoms to arise from a brain Happy Messenger malfunction. THIS MALFUNCTION IS CAUSED BY TOO MUCH STRESS.
What was once regarded as a mental illness has emerged from that shadowy realm to reside in the world of biochemistry and physical illness.