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What if your anxiety symptoms are NOT a sign of emotional or mental stress? What if your anxiety is a sign of cellular toxicity and inflammation?
Recently, here in my home state of Colorado, we were battling forest fires. During those months where we were struggling with poor air quality due to smoke and debris, I noticed something; an increase in the patients I saw with anxiety.
Anxiety is the physical manifestation of stress, and this year (good 'ole 2020) has been the epitome of a stressful year. What I noticed, during this time of increased air pollution from wildfire smoke, was those patients I had seen for years who had a good grip on stress management and were coping well with the 2020 mental stress events were crumbling. They came in saying they were having weird moments of panic that they had never had before. Increases heart palpitations. Normal, everyday tasks felt overwhelming.
The pollution in the air had lowered their threshold.
Cortisol is the hormone of stress, but it does so much more. Every cell in your body has a receptor for cortisol and its related hormone cortisone, which means every cell is controlled by and affected by fluctuations in cortisol.
In fact, cortisol is important for all these functions:
What is Stress, Really?
When you hear the word "stress" you are probably thinking of the responsibilities and expectations of life and the effect they have on you mentally. But, "stress" can be anything that raises cortisol levels.
In fact, there are three categories of stress that we discuss in practice.
Not all stress is negative. You NEED cortisol to keep you alive, it is a survival hormone.
Acute, normal stress reactions have been shown to INCREASE immune health and overall body function. Anxiety is your beacon into the world. It helps you identify situations that could be life threatening, while depression and fatigue tells you when your body is sick and/or needs to rest and repair.
Long term, or unregulated stress, however, can have a significant negative impact on the body. Chronic stress has been discovered as an underlying cause of many common diseases and conditions.
Oxidative STress & Threshold
Cellular stress, or oxidative stress, is a type of stress that is caused by an increase in pollution at a cellular level. This pollution can be an accumulation of exogenous factors, such as smoke from wildfires, pesticides in food, exhaust pollution from vehicles, or other environmental chemicals. It can also occur when the diet is poor, and there are deficiencies in the nutrients needed to clean up the natural buildup of pollution from everyday normal cellular metabolism.
Everyday our body burns fuel (carbohydrates and fats) into heat and energy (ATP). This cycle naturally produces pollution. Our cells are designed with antioxidants to remove and neutralize these natural pollutants. When the demand is higher than the antioxidants, or we are deficient in antioxidants, the cells pollution increases to toxic levels. When this happens, the body increases cortisol to reduce the inflammation associated with the increase in toxicity.
When your body is already heightened in response and has increased cortisol to reduce the inflammation associated with environmental or cellular toxicity, your threshold for mental stress is lowered.
Your Environment is Making you Anxious
This is exactly what I was seeing in the office. The increase in wildfire smoke had caused an increase in cortisol levels to help reduce cellular inflammation, and in turn had lowered their ability to handle everyday life events.
This isn't just anecdotal; we see it in research as well.
A 2015 study done by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and colleagues found that higher exposure to PM2.5 (particulate matter <2.5 μm in diameter), especially higher recent exposure, is associated with an increased risk of anxiety, including fearfulness, desire for avoidance, and tendency to worry.
Jackson Lu, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), published a review in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology in 2019 that explored the connections between air pollution and mental health.
The studies he reviewed found a correlation with higher rates of pollution and increased rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, and a decreased happiness in one's life.
Take the next step
Anxiety is the physical manifestation of stress. Stress hormones can be elevated due to more than just perception and the demands of daily life. Internal inflammation from environmental exposure can increase physiological stress and in turn decrease your threshold for normal life events.
If you feel like your anxiety symptoms may be caused by something in your environment, take the first step in improving your body's ability to fight inflammation by making positive changes in your diet.
Sometimes removing triggers is not an option but giving your body the best defense with the nutrients you put in or don't put in could be the difference between how much your environment affects your mental health.