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The Scholar of Stress
by Kristin Ohlson

Bruce McEwen '59
Photo by Al Fuchs.
It was a gathering of brain science luminaries, both present and future: some of Oberlin's brightest alumni who are stars in the world of neuroscience, plus an assortment of the up-and-coming, who assembled last spring to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Oberlin's neuroscience program.

When his turn came, Bruce McEwen '59 walked to the front of the auditorium, gripped the podium as if he were preparing to leap over it, dispensed with the introductory niceties, then asked, "Who in the audience feels stressed out?"

Someone in the audience whispered loudly, "This is going to be great."

At least one of the reasons for high expectation was the recent publication of McEwen's provocatively titled book, The End of Stress as We Know It, which introduces to the lay public a whole new way of thinking about stress. The book's publication bumped McEwen, who is director of the neuroendocrinology lab at Rockefeller University, into the media limelight, includ- ing a major article in The New York Times and an interview on NPR's Terry Gross Show.

But even without a new book, McEwen's contributions to neuroscience--which didn't even exist as a distinct field when he was an Oberlin student--were already well-appreciated within the world of biomedical research.

Calling McEwen the "leading living scholar on stress," Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky says his work stands out for its range: not only has McEwen conducted pioneering research on stress at a cellular and molecular level, but he's also connected this research to sociocultural issues and stress-related diseases.

So if McEwen was something of a hometown hero at Oberlin's neuroscience reunion, at least part of the reason was that he's a scientist who's thought a great deal about the real-world applications of breakthroughs in his lab.

"Having a social conscience is something that one absorbs at a place like Oberlin," McEwen said in a telephone interview months after the celebration. He was in the midst of reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America and had a whole new appreciation of stress in the lives of the working poor.

"A really good liberal education gives you the sense of how things relate to one another," he continued. "You want to make use of this knowledge. It's too easy for people to focus on very specific topics and ignore everything else."

Stress is a word one hears often--it seems almost to be a rule that health and fitness magazines feature the topic on their covers every other month--and one person's definition often doesn't match another's. So McEwen's book popularizes the concept of "allostatic load," a term that captures all the different definitions and puts them in a scientific context.

Allostasis comes from the word allo, McEwen explained, meaning variable, and stasis, meaning stability. Allostatic systems allow our bodies to remain healthy by their capacity for change and adaptation.

The stress response is one of these allostatic systems. When our brains perceive a threat, whether it's a car hurtling into our lane on the highway or an invitation to be the keynote speaker at a conference, our body goes on alert. Our brain sends a signal to our adrenal glands, which begin producing adrenaline, the first of the stress hormones. Adrenaline immediately acts on our cardiovascular system, which works quickly to pump blood to our muscles and organs. Adrenaline also orders our body to release energy from stored glycogen and fats.

The next stress hormone, cortisol, marshals our immune system to fight infection and injury. Cortisol also begins to rebuild the body's stores of energy, quickly converting food into glycogen or fat. While all this is going on, the body downplays functions that don't have an immediate role to play in this particular fight or flight--so digestion, reproduction, and even growth slow down.

When the stress response is allowed to work properly, we dodge the car on the high- way, give the speech, and our body returns to baseline. But many of us either aren't living under conditions that the body's stress response was developed to address, or we make lifestyle choices that don't allow it to function properly. When this happens, we become "stressed out"--or, in McEwen's parlance, we reach a state of "allostatic load" where the systems that were designed to protect us begin to cause illness or injury.

Take the case of a man working two low-paying jobs while perhaps helping with the care of a child or elderly parent. His stress response is constantly turned on by the demands of his life. His chronically pounding pulse causes surges in blood pressure which damage his coronary arteries. His immune system begins to perform ineffectively, so he's more susceptible to colds and other passing illnesses.

And worse: people stuck in this kind of allostatic load are more likely to suffer depression, obesity, diabetes, decreased mental function, and more. Overstressed people often make things worse by their attempts to cope: grabbing high-calorie fast food instead of taking time to cook, working all night to catch up on chores instead of getting a good night's sleep, affecting a stiff upper lip instead of reaching out for help, or self-medicating with alcohol, drugs or cigarettes. And the destructive cycle can begin at an early age.

"Early life abuse and neglect tips the balance toward the anxious, self-medicating type of person," McEwen said. "There's a study now in rural New York looking at adolescents in relation to their home life. The more adverse their situation, the more likely they are to have increased body mass and blood pressure. That shows how early some of these things can appear. The problems are cumulative and build up over time."

Our grandmothers had the right approach, McEwen said: eat right, exercise, rest, and don't drink too much. We've heard this advice before, of course--so why does he think people might pay attention to it after reading his book?

"Many people like to understand how their bodies and brains are working," McEwen explained. "If they understand some of the basic biology of stress, there's a better chance they can analyze what's happening in their own lives and take steps toward improvement. And then maybe they can think about how to help those ‘nickel and dimed' people."

Kristin Ohlson is a freelance writer in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and a frequent contributor to OAM.

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