Top-quality studies have broadly assessed the contribution of stress to the development of cancer, and few have found it to be significant. The cumulative effects of stress, however, appear to affect the body differently. New studies suggest a person’s allostatic load could be an important determining factor in their risk of dying from cancer, but not all populations appear to be affected equally.
The latest scientific findings, published in the journal SSM Population Health, show that lifelong stress load could substantially increase the risk of dying of cancer.
The study of more than 41,000 people found that having a higher allostatic load was linked with a 106 percent high risk for cancer-associated among young black individuals.
The risk of cancer-related mortality increased by 95 percent among young white individuals with high allostatic load.
Allostatic is a medical term referring to the cumulative burden of chronic stress and life events on the body over time.
It involves a series of stress-response systems at varying degrees, including increases in cortisol, epinephrine, and metabolic and hormonal activation.
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The physiological reactions are normal responses to stress that help stabilise the body in face of a challenge.
The systems revert back to normal when a stressful episode ends, but if stressors become chronic, dysregulation of the systems may occur.
Signs that the body’s stress systems are becoming deregulated include:
- Ache, pains and body aches
- Abrupt mood swings
- Racing and pounding heart
- Chronic fatigue
- Feeling numb
Justin Xavier Moore, PhD, epidemiologist and assistant professor in the department of medicine at Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University told Healio: “Chronic stress causes systemic inflammation. Thus, understanding if stress can have a long-term effect on cancer death was our focus.
“In addition, we know that racial and ethnic minorities, women, sexual and gender minorities, and other minority groups experience social and environmental stressors rooted in system racism, sexism, misogyny and other bases that give them higher relative allostatic load compared with their white male counterparts.”
Can the allostatic load be reversed?
Interventions to alleviate allostatic load mainly include lifestyle improvements, but experts believe the options need to be broadened.
Increasing access to social support and integration, for instance, may be particularly important for the disadvantaged, suggests the study author Professor Moore.
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Some other factors, like diet and exercise, may also help.
Many animal studies have demonstrated that physical activity can promote neuroplasticity in the hippocampus, which counters the negative effects of chronic stress on the brain.
Certain foods, too, may have a direct effect on allostatic load.
Diets characterised by foods high in sodium, for instance, could raise the allostatic load, while diets that put emphasis on antioxidant-rich food sources have the opposite effect.
Physical activity and yoga practice have both been shown to elicit significant improvements in anxiety and depression symptoms.
Doctor Jennifer Dragonette, PsyD, Clinical Services Instructor in Northern California, says the benefits of mindfulness practices like yoga are also well-established.
She explained: “The deep, slow breathing done in yoga and conscious breathing exercises turns on the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and slows the activity of the amygdala, the part of the brain that drives the flight-or-flight response.”
The expert adds that a lack of sleep could also contribute to the allostatic load by multiplying the effects of stress, impairing judgement and intensifying negative emotions.
“A whole-person approach to wellness and well-being is the most effective antidote to stress,” she added.
“That means practising self-care in all aspects of life, [such as] physical, psychological, emotional, relational and spiritual.”