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Protective and Damaging Effects of Mediators of Stress: Elaborating and Testing the Concepts of Allostasis and Allostatic Load


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Abstract: Stress is a condition of human existence and a factor in the expression of disease. A broader view of stress is that it is not just the dramatic stressful events that exact their toll but rather the many events of daily life that elevate activities of physiological systems to cause some measure of wear and tear. We call this wear and tear “allostatic load,” and it reflects not only the impact of life experiences but also of genetic load; individual habits reflecting items such as diet, exercise, and substance abuse; and developmental experiences that set life-long patterns of behavior and physiological reactivity (see McEwen 1). Hormones associated with stress and allostatic load protect the body in the short run and promote adaptation, but in the long run allostatic load causes changes in the body that lead to disease. This will be illustrated for the immune system and brain. Among the most potent of stressors are those arising from competitive interactions between animals of the same species, leading to the formation of dominance hierarchies. Psychosocial stress of this type not only impairs cognitive function of lower ranking animals, but it can also promote disease (e.g. atherosclerosis) among those vying for the dominant position. Social ordering in human society is also associated with gradients of disease, with an increasing frequency of mortality and morbidity as one descends the scale of socioeconomic status that reflects both income and education. Although the causes of these gradients of health are very complex, they are likely to reflect, with increasing frequency at the lower end of the scale, the cumulative burden of coping with limited resources and negative life events and the allostatic load that this burden places on the physiological systems involved in coping and adaptation.