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We truly have social bodies

Our emotional reaction to stress causes an increase in dangerous chemicals in our bodies, which in turn can cause physical stress, resulting in inflammation. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Our emotional reaction to stress causes an increase in dangerous chemicals in our bodies, which in turn can cause physical stress, resulting in inflammation. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Every day there are reports of more construction in Malta. Apart from the noise and the dust, traffic jams and increasing density of population, there are various other hidden negative effects on our bodies.

Our body responds to these stresses in fairly predictable ways; it builds up its defence for an attack. When we are unhappy about our surroundings there is evidence of a psychological reaction.

Our emotional reaction to stress, such as anxiety, fear, anger, sadness-depression and jealousy, causes an increase in dangerous chemicals in our bodies, which in turn can lead to physical stress that can result  in inflammation.

Stress chemicals in the body – such as the allostatic load – eventually cause our bodies to deteriorate. These chemicals, such as the most common one, interluken-6, are higher when we are stressed.

For example, in the US they are found to be higher in people residing in poorer communities, in poor, older adults and those who are racially segregated.

These chemicals are necessary both to prevent disease as well as to fight infection. The problem emerges when they are present all the time. In a stressful environment, being always ‘on’ creates its own physical problems. These stress chemicals cause, among other things, can cause blood flow problems that multiply into many other internal problems.

This relationship, between our home environment and stress, was found to be independent of whether people smoked or were obese (the two main killers). A stressful environment is worse for our health than smoking or being inactive. Poor and stressful neighbourhoods result in negative changes in the chemical composition in our bodies.

We are always on alert, we are never relaxed. In response, the body makes this state of alert permanent. The changes in our bodies become permanent in some cases because these chemicals modify how our genes work.

Changing chemical compositions in our bodies have lasting effects because they switch the expression of some genes. Some genes are asleep, while others are active. Our environment has the capacity to switch on and off these genes. There lies the fascination with how our bodies work. These epi-genes can be switched on and off, which affects protein production.

A stressful environment is worse for our health than smoking or being inactive

Environmental factors such as mercury levels in water, second-hand smoke, high-fat/high-sugar diet, drugs, pesticides, air pollution, industrial chemicals, heavy metals, hormones in drinking water and aggressive/abuse behaviour have been shown to affect epi-genetics. 

Once these genes are switched on (or off), they start to cause changes that can have negative effects in the long term.

Furthermore, epi-genetic changes can cause cancer, diabetes, obesity, infertility, respiratory diseases, allergies and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The environment we live in changes our body.

Where we live is just as important in promoting longevity as biology, diet or medical care. For example, in the US some black prison inmates live longer than their peers living outside, in the community. Our environment can protect us from harm and it can also promote health. Numerous studies have shown that both monks and nuns living in religious orders live much longer sometimes by an additional seven to 20 years.

Even if we account for the higher level of smoking (higher rates of lung cancer) among monks and the lack of childbirth (higher rates of uterine cancer) among nuns, their life xpectancy remains better than average. But with monks and nuns perhaps it is spirituality that helps.

A recent 2015 Pew Research Study looking at whether religion has any influence on living longer found that although religion is important there are other factors that are important. They found that Jewish people live longer than any other religious group, but in close second came the unaffiliated group, those who did not follow any religion. 

If we account for income we will find that most of these differences will disappear. Studies showing that religion can determine how long you live also highlights that the advantage is more likely due to the sense of community more than any other spiritual advantage. Feeling a sense of community makes you less stressed. Similar to that sense of being home, where you know you can relax. Sometimes religion and the people we interact with, make us feel that we belong and we can stop stressing for a part of the day. But we cannot just move to a better place or adopt a somewhat more advantageous religion.

Living in a rich neighbourhood is not necessarily a good thing if you do not belong. Researchers found that low-income, older adults living in high-income neighbourhoods were worse off: they had poorer physical functioning, more functional limitations, worse self-rated health, worse cognitive ability and were lonelier than low-income adults who lived in low-income neighbourhoods. Being in a high-income neighbourhood did not confer an advantage because they did not belong. It is the feeling that we belong which reduces our stress and makes us relax.

Our bodies are designed to adjust to our environment. If we feel threatened, then our bodies are in fight mode, which causes stress internally. If we feel at home and relaxed, then the body starts looking after itself, repairing itself and maintaining itself.

It is fascinating to admire what the body does to protect us. If we feel relaxed, then the body begins to repairs itself. Richard Rorty in 1979 said: “…if the body had been easier to understand, nobody would have thought that we had a mind.”

In the Blue Zones, areas around the world where there is a concentration of people living up to and beyond 100 years of age, there is one stark reality. They are all neighbours sharing the same environment. Where you live and who you live with in your community contributes to your health and how long you live. We truly have social bodies.

Mario Garrett was born in Malta and is currently a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University in California, US.

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