Stressors can be psychological or physical in nature. Psychological stressors include life events such as a loss of job, or aggressive drivers, or even playing violent video games. Physical stressors include challenges to our body, and we as Canadians are fortunate to mostly have to deal with cold weather, although many people have to deal with stressors like hunger or abuse. Regardless of the source of stress, the impact of stress on the body is the same, and over time, it can be the cause of many diseases. Studies have linked stress as the cause of diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and even cancer.
How Does Stress Cause Cancer
It has been well established that during chronic stress, stress hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine interact with tumour tissue. Tumour cells have receptors that can be stimulated by stress hormones. Therefore, stress can not only cause cancer, but it can also contribute to its growth and progression, and even its spread. While the process is complex, stress can impact cancerous tissue in the following ways:
- stress hormones bind to cancer cells and interfere with cell death;
- stress hormones contribute to new blood vessel growth in the area of the tumour, increasing the risk of metastasis;
- stress hormones cause inflammation near the tumour bed, which can contribute to cancer growth;
- stress hormones increase the release of cortisol, which can raise blood sugar, and then in turn can impair cancer cell death; and
- stress causes a decrease in cancer protective hormones, such as dopamine and oxytocin.
(Afrisham et al. The influence of psychological stress on the initiation and progression of diabetes and cancer. Int J Endocrinol Metab, 2019;17(2):e67400)
Stress Management Ideas
Singing not only reduces the perceived feelings of stress, but it also reduces stress hormone levels. You now know the importance of reducing stress hormone levels, so sing your heart out! A recent study actually measured anxiety and well-being before and after people with cancer joined a choir group, and found that over time, anxiety was reduced and well-being was increased (BMJ Open, 2019;9(8):e026995).
Raise Dopamine and Oxytocin Levels
The last bullet point above mentioned that stress decreases protective hormones, such as dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine inhibits cancer progression, and oxytocin reduces the feeling of stress. Therefore, we want to cause spikes in these hormones as much as possible. But how do we increase dopamine and oxytocin levels?
Dopamine is related to reward and motivation, and plays a role in memory and attention. As previously mentioned, it inhibits cancer growth as well. Two of the most studied ways to increase dopamine are 1) listening to music, and 2) meditating. Music therapy is an accepted form of integrative treatment, and has been shown to reduce heart rate and blood pressure, decrease anxiety and pain, and improve fatigue and quality of life (Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2016;15(8)). Meditation is a mind-body therapy and has been shown to improve nausea, pain, and depression (Curr Oncol Rep, 2017;19(10):67).
Oxytocin is our “love” hormone. As you might expect, oxytocin can be increased in the brain through human contact. Give someone a gift. Pay someone a compliment, and mean it. Say “I love you” to your friends and family. Give and receive hugs. Human contact makes us feel good, which lowers stress, and can be protective to our health. You know what they say – 8 hugs a day keeps the cancer away!
Should I put that on a T-shirt or what?!
The Wonder Woman Stance
Amy Cuddy is a researcher at Harvard University who studies body language. She conducted a very famous study on performing “power poses” and how they impact cortisol and testosterone levels. What she found is that standing with your hands confidently on your hips for two minutes can decrease your cortisol levels, and increase your testosterone levels. This pose leaves people feeling more confident and assertive. She recommends standing like this before going into a stressful situation, such as a presentation or asking your boss for a raise.
Perhaps even this pose could leave you feeling more hopeful and resilient. Do this pose before getting treatment, or going to a doctor’s appointment, or even just on a daily basis. Little tricks like this that can actually decrease stress hormone levels are excellent ways to be proactive about your health.
Other Stress Management Ideas
There are innumerable ideas for stress management, but I really like the above suggestions because they are fun, free, and easy to do. But you can also add other lifestyle factors such as exercise to the list. Exercise has been shown to decrease stress in a number of studies. There are many calming herbs that reduce stress such as lavender or ashwaghanda, or supplements such as GABA or L-theanine. The list is really endless.
The point is that while stress management may be an obvious addition to your treatment, it is important to actually focus on finding time to implement whatever strategies work best for you. And if one strategy does not work, try something else. Be consistent – it might just save your life.