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How exactly does Stress cause Illness and Disease? The latest Science on the ‘Allostatic Load’

Stress is bad for us…

stressApparently. Well we all know that by now don’t we, because even the medical profession say so quite openly? But HOW exactly is stress bad for us? HOW exactly does something as commonplace as stress affect our immune systems and cause illness, and later disease? ( Aside from the emotional and psychological havoc it wreaks as well! ). If you’re interested, read on – I’m going to summarise the findings of recent research carried out in the U.S. by J G Logan at The University of North Carolina which introduces a more tangible and robust link, and certainly adds credibility to the role of mind-body based clinical interventions to help resolve, reverse ( yes really ) and prevent physical and mental health related problems.

Allostatic Load

It turns out it’s all to do with something called the Allostatic Load ( anyone who has attended one of my Mind Calm Meditation workshops will have heard me talk about this before: ). The Allostatic Load is an immunity-sapping burden which gets placed on our bodies and organs when our natural adaptive process of ‘Allostasis’ fails. So let’s just understand Allostasis before we go on.

If you remember back to Biology lessons in school, you will recall a similar term: ‘Homeostasis’ – the two processes are designed to keep us stable and well, they are similar but different.

Homeostasis is a sophisticated feedback mechanism, designed to reduce variability and maintain a constant environment throughout our bodily systems.

Allostasis actually favours variability over constancy, because it is our flexible adaption process – it is our internal environment adapting and changing in response to our external environment, or our stress producing psycho-social challenges.

So the Allostatic Load refers to the way in which normal allostatic adaption processes simply wear out or shut off – meaning that our internal physiological systems are rendered unable to adapt. Frequent or chronic responses to stressors, produce this shutting off in several of our important ( and essential for health and wellbeing ) physiological systems:

  • Immune system
  • Sympathetic nervous system
  • Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis

This forces our bodies into several types or combinations of ‘response patterns’, which can be thought of as ‘overactive or inefficiently managed allostatic responses’ – It is these energy sapping and inefficient responses which ultimately result in chronic illness. Let’s just dig a little deeper into the science to understand HOW that happens…..

These responses involve the whole brain and body.

The brain is where our response to stressors begins. It is here that the individual’s brain ‘decides’ what is going to be perceived as stressful – although we recognise some obvious common ‘stressors’ in the modern world, they are in fact different for everyone – The perceptions of the brain are influenced by individual differences including: genes, historical experiences, early development and learned behaviours. So it is our own individual ‘perceived stress’, which then initiates the physiological and behavioural responses, and these responses then lead to allostasis across various bodily systems.

A combination of health damaging effects then happen:

  • Adrenaline and cytokines cause tissue damage or receptor desensitization in the organs
  • Glucocorticoids cause a suppression of the immune system
  • Cytokines cause atherosclerosis ( clogging of arteries ) and obesity
  • Cortisol results in atropy ( dying off ) of nerve cells in the brain which leads to anxious depression – in fact certain areas of the brain can actually shrink and become less functional, one example of such is the hippocampus which is important for memory and new learning
  • The amygdala – the part of the brain most important in setting off the physiological stress responses – actually grows. Yes the more stressed we get, the better our brains become at triggering us into even further stress!!

This is why we need to start taking stress seriously rather than normalising it and wearing it with a badge of honour. It may be an overused word in everyday language, but it is a potent force which is making us sick, less capable, emotionally unstable and in many cases – seriously ill.


So why do some people seem to succumb to the effects of stress yet others fare better? And how can we use this knowledge to help vulnerable people?

Resilience, as defined by Fossion and Linkowsi ( 2007 ) is:

“The ability to successfully adapt and function proficiently when faced with traumatic circumstances”. Resilience minimises wear and tear, keeps the Allostatic Load to a minimum. 

Some people, down to a combination of their genetics, their childhood experiences and their early developmental environment, are just ‘wired up’ in their brains for better resilience. Others are conversely ‘wired up’ for less.

Firstly, the good news is the brain is plastic – meaning whilst it can shrink and grow in a way which is not useful – it can also grow and shrink in reverse, in ways which are helpful and reverse the effects of stress and boost resilience. This ability of the brain to change is called Neural Plasticity, it describes the brain’s inherent ability to ‘re-wire’.

In other words, people who have become less resilient can change their brains, with the right interventions to enhance their resilience and completely change what might have seemed like their biological fate and their physiological outcomes. Many recent studies have shown that clinical interventions increase resilience, reverse stress and change health outcomes.


One practice, which has gathered a robust body of clinical evidence over the last 10 years is meditation. A modern meditation practice such as Mindfulness, has been shown to reverse the signs of stress, at a cellular level, and to completely re-wire the brain in as little as 8 weeks ( Professor Sara Lazar – Harvard Medical School )  – Modern forms of meditation are growing on popularity in integrative therapeutic approaches to improve emotional health, as well as with growing number of professionals who want to resolve their stress levels to perform better, feel happier and create more success in their lives.

If reading this has inspired you to make some changes to your own stress / life / health – and you would like to work with me One to One or in a Group Coaching format, you can read more or make enquiries via the following links:

–      My website –

–      Mind CALM Modern Meditation Workshops held all over the UK – MIND CALM

–      Mind CALM Meditation taught in a relaxing retreat setting ( Ibiza or Bordeaux ) –

–      ‘Serenity & Success Coaching Workshops’:

MANCHESTER Thursday 10am-5pm 14/05/15

LONDON Thursday evenings (x3)  4/06/15 & 11/06/15 & 18/06/15

–      Corporate Coaching Programmes –

Lisa Bardell is a Performance Coach, NLP Master Coach, Clinical Hypnotherapist and Modern Meditation Coach running private clinics in the heart of the City of London ( Liverpool St ) and Cheshire, and Corporate Coaching Programmes for businesses in Manchester and London. Lisa leads regular Coaching Workshops and Retreats, tickets and details can be found in the Eventbrite link: