Stress, Disease and Health: A Historical Perspective.

Let’s begin with a simple question: What is health?

Miriam-Webster defines heath as, ” the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit; especially: freedom from physical disease or pain“(1). This widely accepted definition not only sees us as both a physical and metaphysical being, but also alludes to being free of disease.

So then, what is disease?

Disease is defined as, “a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms”(2). Keep this definition in the back of your mind, as we will come back to it.

A Brief Survey of Biological History

Charles Darwin

Fig 2. Image Credit: The Hornet magazine, 1871

In 1859 Charles Darwin brilliantly stated, “Man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits” (3). His work forever changed how we view biology and is the premise for the stress-adaptation paradigm. The concept of stress is imperative to understanding health, so let’s dissect it a bit. In 2005 there was a paper published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology by Bijlsma and Loeschcke that does a nice job defining stress from various frameworks, showcasing the causes of stress, and relating stress to adaptation and evolution. I suggest reading the paper, for I pose a modified version: stress is any factor that alters the fitness of an organism through adaptation. There are two major sources of stress: external and internal. External stress is broken down into abiotic factors, like temperature, climate factors and chemical components (naturally occurring and man-made) and biotic factors, like competition, predation and parasitism (5,6). Internally is where stress becomes abstract; “environmental stress can only be valued in relation to the organism experiencing the stress, and therefore stress also has an intrinsic component”(4). This means we all feel and react to stress differently. As I began to think deeply about this abstract concept, I came to realize stress is a paradox; and here’s why: stress will ultimately kill us, but without it we would die.

The important concept to grasp is we have developed innate algorithms over a very long period of time to adapt to a wide variety of stresses in two ways: adaptation or maladaptation. From a Darwinian perspective, we increase fitness or decrease fitness. From a physiological perspective, our cells get bigger, smaller or multiply. From a pathological perspective, our cells get disorganized, commit suicide, or die. Thus, we can control for adaptive stresses, by selecting out the maladaptive and ultimately alter our fitness (stress management).

Theobald Smith

Screen Shot 2018-05-22 at 5.38.27 PM.png
Fig 1. Credit: Theobald Smith, 1934

In 1934, Theobald Smith connected several ideas from Pasteur and Koch’s Germ Theory and created the equation observed in Figure 1. It emphasizes the importance of the interaction between the germ and host (20). Overall, these interactions will be some shade of a symbiotic relationship, being mutualistic, commensalistic or parasitic. Before I explain what this actually means, think about this: “the germs in the normal flora are often closely related, or even identical to the germs that cause disease. Various staphylococci and streptococci, for example, cause boils and abscesses, food poisoning, osteomyelitis, meningitis, pneumonia, rheumatic fever and scarlet fever, among other diseases. Yet streptococcus salivarius, St. mutans, St. sangius, and other varieties of St. viridans are all common mouth germs, and many people even have mutualistic populations of St. pneumoniae, which can directly cause pneumonia”(20). Alas, another paradox: germs cause disease, but we benefit from them.

Pathogens have evolved to survive and reproduce; not kill us (oversimplification). For the most part, it is in their best interest to maintain a mutualistic relationship with us. Therefore, the major factor in determining the severity disease is us, specifically our immune system. If we maintain the denominator side of our relationship with germs, then all goes well. It’s the times we don’t that we get sick.

Francis Crick

Central Dogma
Fig 3. Crick’s first outline of the central dogma, from an unpublished note made in 1956. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In 1957 Francis Crick founded the central dogma of biology. “For Crick, four kinds of information transfer clearly existed: DNA → DNA (DNA replication), DNA → RNA (the first step of protein synthesis), RNA → protein (the second step of protein synthesis) and RNA → RNA (RNA viruses copying themselves)”(18). His theory postulated that our genotype is in control of our phenotype. But then, what controls our genotype? This is where epigenetics comes into play. Epigenetic’s is defined as “any process that alters gene activity without changing the DNA sequence, and leads to modifications that can be transmitted to daughter cells”(19). As we begin to understand epigenetics more and more, another paradox becomes clear: We are the sum of our DNA, but we can control the sum. The stresses imposed on our genome may be a more robust player than the genome itself, in respect to our phenotype. So, from a molecular genetics perspective, we are in the driver seat.

Standing on the shoulders of three giants.

When I look at the work of these three men, one thing screams out to me: we are in control of our health by what we repeatedly do in the present. If we chose to live how mother nature intended and participate in the garden, we will create health. The crux of health comes down to stress management because the types of stress we expose ourselves to control our phenotype and directly impact our immune system’s resistance to disease (21). In Paul Chek’s book The Last Four Doctors You’ll Ever Need, he spells out how to manage stress with the use of four internal doctor’s: Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet, Dr. Movement and Dr. Happiness. In summary, he feels if we can find balance between these four pillars, we will be healthy (22). It takes a considerable amount of consciousness to understand how each of our stresses affects us, which is where I think an external Doctor can come into play. The Doctor’s job should be to identify maladaptive stresses in the patient and help eliminate them before a disease occurs, while simultaneously titrating the adaptive stresses.

Here is a laundry list of the top maladaptive stresses the millennial generation is up against:

  1. Prescription drugs (16)
  2. Pesticide in foods (13)
  3. Toxins in beauty products (14, 15)
  4. Aluminum in 29 doses of 9 vaccines (8, 9) and thimerosal-containing vaccines (10, 11). *Note: I am not anti-vaccine, but anti-adjuvant.
  5. A lack of movement (17)
  6. Social media (7)
  7. A loss of the day-night cycle (12)
  8. Electric Cigarettes (23)

At the end of the day, we need to pick and chose our stresses, but be active in doing so. I think many people acquire diseases because they are not active in their own health. This inactivity seems to stem from a broken health-care field, where it is the norm to treat the symptom rather than the cause. But, I digress. Going forward, I plan on providing insights on how I would suggest eating, moving, resting and being happy from a biological perspective. Health is the full expression of life and everyone deserves to enjoy the ride.


Works Cited:

  1. health.” Merriam-Webster, 2018. Web. 21 May 2018.

  2. disease.” Merriam-Webster, 2018. Web. 21 May 2018.
  3. Darwin C. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. 1. London, UK: John Murray; 1859.
  4. Bijlsma, R, and V Loeschcke. “Environmental stress, adaptation and evolution: an overview.” Journal Of Evolutionary Biology 18.4 (2005):744-749. Web.
  5. Lindgren, B. & Laurila, A. 2005. Proximate causes of adaptive growth rates: growth efficiency variation among latitudinal populations of Rana temporaria. J. Evol. Biol. 18: 820828.
  6. Relyea, R.A. 2005. The heritability of inducible defences in tadpoles. J. Evol. Biol. 18: 856866.
  7. Kraut, R, et al. “Internet paradox. A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being?.” American Psychologist 53.9 (1998):1017-1031. Web.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018).  Immunization Schedules. Retrieved from
  9. Tomljenovic, L, and C A A Shaw. “Aluminum vaccine adjuvants: are they safe?.” Current Medicinal Chemistry 18.17 (2011):2630-2637. Web.
  10. Geier, David A, Janet K Kern, and Mark R Geier. “Increased risk for an atypical autism diagnosis following Thimerosal-containing vaccine exposure in the United States: A prospective longitudinal case-control study in the Vaccine Safety Datalink.” Journal of trace elements in medicine and biology 42(2017):18-24. Web.
  11. Geier, David A, Janet K Kern, and Mark R Geier. “A Two-Phase Case-Control Study of Autism Risk Among Children Born From the Late 1990s Through the Early 2000s in the United States.” Medical Science Monitor 22(2016):5196-5202. Web.
  12. Van der Maren, Solenne, et al. “Daily Profiles of Light Exposure and Evening Use of Light-emitting Devices in Young Adults Complaining of a Delayed Sleep Schedule.” Journal of biological rhythms 33.2 (2018):192-202. Web.
  13. Zweig, G. Plant Food Hum Nutr (1973) 23: 77.
  14. Barrett JR. Chemical Exposures: The Ugly Side of Beauty Products. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2005;113(1):A24.
  15. Darbre PD. Underarm antiperspirants/deodorants and breast cancer. Breast Cancer Research : BCR. 2009;11(Suppl 3):S5. doi:10.1186/bcr2424.
  16. Manchikanti, Laxmaiah, et al. “Opioid epidemic in the United States.” Pain physician 15.3 Suppl (2012):ES9-E38. Web.
  17. Baddeley B, Sornalingam S, Cooper M. Sitting is the new smoking: where do we stand? The British Journal of General Practice. 2016;66(646):258. doi:10.3399/bjgp16X685009.
  18. Cobb M (2017) 60 years ago, Francis Crick changed the logic of biology. PLOS Biology 15(9): e2003243.
  19. Weinhold B. Epigenetics: The Science of Change. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2006;114(3):A160-A167.
  20. Tierno, Philip M. The Secret Life of Germs: Observations and Lessons from a Microbe Hunter. Pocket Books, 2001.
  21. Morey, Jennifer N. et al. “Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function.” Current opinion in psychology 5 (2015): 13–17. PMC. Web. 23 May 2018.
  22. Check, Paul. THE LAST FOUR DOCTORS YOU’LL EVER NEED How to Get Healthy Now! PPS Success, LLC, 2006.

1 thought on “Stress, Disease and Health: A Historical Perspective.

  1. Francis Ferrante July 5, 2018 — 3:24 am

    It’s about time we started calling Mike …..”Doctor Mike”……In a couple of years he’ll be making House Calls


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