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How Stress is Hurting Your Health

Stress is hurting your health causing chronic illness, affecting the quality of every day of your life and how long you have.

Most of us don’t want to die. We may not necessarily want to live forever, we may not know what comes after, but most of us want a decent chunk of time on this earth. Time to be with people we love, time to see our children grow up, time to pursue our dreams, time to learn more, time to simply enjoy being alive. 

I’m only in my forties yet I’ve had days when I can feel how stress has been hurting my health, making me feel old. This scares me. I plan to live until well into my nineties, there’s no room for feeling old now! After I gave birth to twins 3 years ago, I was shattered. Carrying twins was more than double the effort of carrying one, I already had a one-year old and I went back to work after 6 months. I started to notice how I was always describing myself as tired. I would actually hear myself tell other people that I felt like I was 100 years old. And then I started getting joint pains. My feet and wrists especially, but my back was definitely grumbling too.  And this is when I really, properly grasped how what we think and the way we live our lives has such a major impact on our health.  

I’ve been a doctor since 2002. For the last 7 years I’ve been the boss doctor in an aboriginal health centre in remote Western Australia. It’s been an amazing learning experience and opened doors of opportunity. Last year I was a finalist for GP of the Year and this year I was a finalist for a Clinical Leadership award. But, while you can have all the knowledge or accolades in the world, it’s no use unless you learn to apply it to yourself – case in hand, moi.

Did you know that chronic illnesses, diseases which are fuelled by our behaviours, lifestyle and habits, are responsible for two thirds of global deaths? And this is actually worse in first world countries where this figure is almost 90%!

What I realised as I was slowly feeling older and older, was that I was not living a healthy life. Now here’s the interesting part. To the outsider it might have looked like I was really healthy. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink alcohol and I’m thin. And these are the main ‘lifestyle’ factors people think of, right? – obesity, smoking, alcohol. But, there was a whole host of other behaviours that were damaging my health. I wasn’t sleeping well, unavoidable with three kids under three. There wasn’t much time for meal prep so I wasn’t eating well. And I was working way too much. 

And then an idea hit me. I figured out why women are three times as likely to suffer from autoimmune disease than men. Autoimmune diseases like lupus, thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, MS are diseases of EXHAUSTION! Simply put, women do too much. 

This was me. No one asked me to do everything I was doing. I have an amazing husband who is quite happy to take on domestic chores. My problem is that I thought I could do it better.  And of course there are some things I just can do better than him, like getting my kids to eat broccoli. But even so, although help was there, I wasn’t capitalising on it. 

I have patients and friends, all women, who developed autoimmune disease often after becoming new mums or after a major upheaval in their lives. I knew that if I didn’t sort out my life, this could be my fate too. I had to transform my life. So here’s what I did:

  • I decided my health was more important than my salary so I reduced work to 4 days a week
  • I put boundaries up and got better at saying no. Trying to be everything to everyone left me with nothing for me.
  • I moved all the kids into one room and took the spare bedroom for myself. A room where I could sleep on my own and undisturbed. 
  •  I started waking up a little earlier to meditate.

So, it turns out my theory about exhaustion causing disease is not so far out of left field. Long term stress puts your brain in a state where it takes instruction to remain in a constant fight/flight/survival mode and this can actually disrupt your DNA. If you kept driving your car around in first gear all the time, you’d wear it out. First gear is only for uphill struggles, or navigating treacherous bends in the road, for those acute, severe, short lived traumas. The DNA damage caused by chronic stress affects the way our cells replicate, increases the chance of mutations and errors, causes chemical changes that affect the way DNA is managed. And all of this is the precursor to disease. 

When I see patients day in and day out with chronic illness, I don’t feel like I am doing them justice. I don’t have enough time to really talk to them about this stuff, about their lives and how they feel about themselves, what their passions and dreams are, what’s holding them back, what’s hurting in their life, what disappointments they bear. There’s too much ill health and unfortunately the healthcare business model around the world has evolved to centre around prescription writing. I cringe to admit that I have many patients on over twenty prescribed medications. It’s not because I’m being a lazy doctor. I am simply trying to keep my patients alive by getting their blood pressure, or sugar levels or kidney function into a safe range. But there’s hardly any help I can get them for behaviour change or hacking their less helpful habits. I have been doing my best to prescribe meditation but it’s tricky to teach in just a minute or two. 

Autoimmune diseases are only a slice of all the chronic diseases out there. The most common ones are heart disease, smoking related lung disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. We live in a time of unprecedented medical and technological progress. The variety of pharmaceutical treatments available now is nothing short of miraculous. The understanding we have of nutrition is better than ever before. Yet people are getting sicker. Here are some sobering statistics:

  • 1 in 3 adults now has a chronic condition
  • In the USA nearly half of all adults have high blood pressure
  • 60% of American adults have at least one chronic illness
  • 42% of American adults suffer from two or more lifestyle diseases
  • 89% of Australian deaths in 2018 were related to chronic illnesses
  • Heart disease claimed nearly 18 million lives last year and this is only increasing
  • In China over 100 million people have diabetes 
  • 1 in 11 adults across the world has a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes
  • 40% of adults in USA and Australia are obese

Chronic illness drives inflammation in the body that other conditions piggyback on like blindness, pain and even infertility.

Living with chronic illness not only affects how your body functions, it affects the quality of every day of your life, how you feel about yourself, what you do with your life, what you believe is possible for you and ultimately how much time you will have on this planet. 

I’m on a mission to change this. I want to empower women with chronic illness to improve their health and their lives, from understanding the diagnosis, to unleashing the power of the mind and boosting lifestyle.

From this blog I dream of creating a community of women who support each other, who raise one another, who come together to create healthier, happier, longer lives for themselves and for others. 

If you have anything you want to ask, or if there’s a topic you’d like me to write about just let me know!

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