One of the first things I ever taught Gus Seinberg how to do was spoon. Even when he was a puppy and I toted him around San Francisco in a bike bag, whiling away the hours on the back patio of The Bearded Lady Truckstop Cafe in a vintage slip with platform combat boots, it was never me that invested in him learning how to be a good dog. I’d take his puffy tiny body home and snuggle his back against me and smell the crown of his puppy head whispering to him all the things we’d do together, me and him. Sometimes he’d turn towards me and put his big floppy paws on my chest and just stare at me, his eyeliner and brown eyes pleading for language. We’d nap while I could have been doing something productive: working on a book, printing for a photography show, EXERCISING. But instead I’d watch the butts in the ashtray shift and morph into new heights and stare out the window of the studio apartment waiting for my girlfriend to come teach Gus something useful. Sit. Stay. Back Seat. Off.
Everything helpful he knows, he learned from her. I really only taught him how to spoon. To this day, if I lie down on any surface he can get to and I toss my arms out perpendicular to my body, he’ll heave his 50 lb body into me, back first, and lie his long face on the pillow by me. It’s one of my favorite things.
But now he’s a big dude and he has paws that don’t flop and they have big black talons on the ends of them. He still turns over and digs his feet into me and sometimes the nails get me. Then I have a weird welt across me, like a protester all risen up against the man, red faced and furious.
That’s inflammation. Not to state the obvious. But when did inflammation get so confusing? Who are these doctors who keep talking about inflammation and how it’s the root of all medical problems? Is my internal landscape a mighty welt? Is the inflammation about organs or tissues os the blood? Will it make me feel bad? Am I literally SWOLLEN? I have gotten the answer to this question through entire books and STILL felt confused. So let’s get super basic.
The first thing is that inflammation has a purpose. When the body is injured, in pain, stressed out or otherwise flummoxed, it responds to the injury and it’s actually trying to heal itself. Whether you’ve been cut or burned or stung or stabbed or whatever, the body has a bunch of cells that tell it something bad has happened. Your brain gets the pain message but the rest of you is busy as well. The site of the injury gets the message to increase blood flow to the injury and that happens by the blood vessels opening up to let more nutrients reach the injury. That’s why the site gets red and hot and puffy. The blood brings plasma and leukocytes, or white blood cells, to get to work immediately in the healing process. So as all these responses from your immune system take place, not only do they act to help you by giving you a good dose of pain to let you know exactly what the injured piece of your body is capable of and NOT capable of (like, no don’t turn it THAT way!), but under all the red puffy action, there’s clotting and cleaning and repair going on.
So if inflammation is about healing, why all the evil chatter about it being the root of every major disease in the western world? Well, inflammation is supposed to just do its job and get on with it, as the British say. It’s an emergency system.
What does that have to do with being stressed out?
This is stressing me out.
Look, our minds and bodies arrived with convenient alarm systems to keep us safe from harm. Until just about 10,000 years ago, we Homo sapiens spent our days simply surviving just to get to the next one. We gathered berries, and whittled wood into sharp points. We tested mushrooms with a high cost of trial and error, stalked game, and sought out water sources. We found shelter and warmth, companionship. At the same time, of course, creatures sought us as their dinner as well, and upon sight of, let’s say, a mountain lion staring us down, our bodies would sound the sirens loud and focused, giving us two famous choices: Fight or Flight.
In this moment, the phenomenal body does some serious acrobatics in its efforts to keep us alive. Our hypothalamus, a powerful gland sitting pretty at the base of our brains, sends in the troops of defense. Using a team of nerves and hormones, these players poke our adrenal glands, just chilling out in a catnap above our kidneys, telling them to get the hell up and deliver us a wallop of hormones featuring the big stars: adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline’s job is to increase our heart rates, and as it does so, elevate our blood pressure and catapult our energy supplies into survival levels. Cortisol, the big cheese of stress hormones, is quite busy with its own tasks, increasing sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, to making extra energy available for thinking in lightning speed fashion (the brain functions solely on the power of glucose). It also increases the availability of substances that repair the body’s tissues, on alert for possible injury.
And if that wasn’t enough, cortisol also acts as a master editor, slicing out nonessential functions that would slow us in a fight-or-flight situation. For instance, it demotes immune system responses and stops paying attention to the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This heightened state is not concerned with your biological clock, your desire for dinner, or for crying out loud, your height.
But what happens to this system when the threat never passes?
Modern life in our Western culture doesn’t present us with quite as many mountain lion threats or whittling opportunities as it used to. What it does present us with are continuously stressful situations of the 21st century. Will we lose the home we spent our entire lives working for? Can we retain our job toiling in a cube for 60 hours a week to make endless deadlines? Will our partners stay with us and give us the love we need when they barely remember what we look like? Remaining constantly on edge keeps us in a consistent state that was designed to last for only moments, and our systems begin to break down under the demands of our constant requests for extra troops in the fight. In a healthy body, the body’s stress response system is supposed to be self-regulating. Once we escape from the mountain lion, or the thief in the alley, or the car swerving out in front of us, our levels should return to their happy places, decreasing hormone levels, blood pressure, and adrenaline once the threat to our body has passed. At this point, our digestive system once again begins its digesting (not to mention its manufacturing of serotonin), our reproductive systems return to watching over our abilities to conceive and procreate, and our growth hormones relax into a healthy aging process.
The problem with stress in our lives today is that our minds tell our bodies that we are under constant assault. These systems stay on alert, breeding chronic physical, psychological, and emotional crises that feed each other and reinforce problems. Overloading our bodies with exposure to cortisol and its other stress hormone cronies disrupts almost all of our body’s functions. Constant inflammation. This puts us at increased risk of numerous health problems, including, and unfortunately not limited to:
- Heart disease
- Digestive tract ailments
- Memory impairment
- Skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis.
So what are we supposed to do? Good question. Part 2 of the series will cover some stress reduction tips. Until then, just continue appreciating your dog. Especially if he’s as cute as Gus.