Wyclef Jean hospitalized for exhaustion, stress

Hip-Hop star-turned Haitian presidential hopeful-turned hip-hop star, Wyclef Jean was hospitalized in New Jersey yesterday with what was called “exhaustion.” Speaking to MTV News, spokesman Marian Salzman said the singer was recovering from “an extremely gruelling three months – truly an exhausting eight months, since the earthquake when he recommitted himself to our homeland”.

“[Wyclef] is currently suffering the effects of lack of sleep and stress, global travel, even the endless public eye,” she said, “and has asked that his fans and supporters bear with him for the next several days as he regains his physical health and stamina. Then he will be back out in front of the crusade to rebuild Haiti and his pledge to make it even better for business.”

What exactly is stress? Are there different kinds? Under what circumstances is stress (anxiety) a disease in itself?

Physiological stress, also known as the fight or flight response, is an ancient mechanism that humans share with animals that allows us to cope with immediate dangers such as stalking and attack by predators. When our nervous systems perceive a potentially dangerous situation, special structures in our brains (namely the hypothalamus and pituitary glands) send chemical messages through the blood stream to our adrenal glands (which sit just on top of our kidneys). Our adrenal glands then release the hormones adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) and a steroid called cortisol.  These hormones travel via the blood stream to other organs and cause the following effects on our bodies:

  • Redirect blood from less vital to more vital organs
  • Increase our heart rate and blood pressure to supply blood more quickly and efficiently
  • Increase our breathing rate to get more oxygen into our blood
  • Break down complex carbohydrates in our livers and muscles to get more sugar (glucose) into our blood

It is important to understand that this response is rapid and brief and gives us extra energy and concentration to deal with immediate threats. This acute stress response evolved as a survival mechanism and is therefore generally a normal, healthy way in which our bodies and minds deal with danger. In our ancestors on the savannah, this could have meant escape from being killed and eaten by a lion. Unfortunately, this fight or flight response can be triggered by many non-life-threatening situations and frequent, repeated triggering of this stress response leads to chronic stress which is a decidedly unhealthy state. For example, chronically elevated cortisol can suppress your immune system leading to increased susceptibility to infections and perhaps even other diseases such as cancers (see recent Michael Douglas story). (Incidentally, artificial forms of cortisol such as prednisone, are used medically as drugs to suppress over-active immune responses in diseases such as asthma and lupus, or to prevent rejection of organ transplants.)

Psychological stress, or anxiety, is not entirely separate from physiological stress and serves to heighten concentration and focus in fight-or-flight situations. Again, anxiety is generally a normal, transient an self-limited way that our bodies and minds respond to life events.  However, anxiety can become so severe and unrelenting that it becomes a mental health disorder AND this psychological stress can, in turn, cause physical symptoms which can include:

  • Headache
  • Back pain
  • Chest pain
  • Heart disease
  • Heart palpitations
  • High blood pressure
  • Decreased immunity
  • Stomach upset
  • Sleep problems

The long-term chronic stress causes wear and tear on the body leading to health problems which include:

Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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