Understanding Chronic Social Stressors & Wellness Interventions

A family spending time together eating lunch smiling to take a selfie photo and happy because they were able to utilize functional medicine interventions to mitigate their exposure to chronic stressors.
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Stress affects all systems of the body, from hormones and nervous system pathways to cardiovascular and gastrointestinal functioning.1 The cumulative burden of chronic stress and negative life events has been associated with poorer health outcomes, including an increased risk of inflammatory disease development2,3 and a suppressed immune system.4,5 Sustained psychological stress may also influence sleep quality and pain experiences and increase depressive symptoms and fatigue.6-8 Further, experiencing chronic stress may decrease mitochondrial energy production capacity and even alter mitochondrial morphology.9

Recurrent exposure to social, physical, or environmental stress is considered a social determinant of mental and physical health that may impact your quality of life and wellness. You may also experience multiple chronic stressors that compound negative health effects and disease burden.10

Chronic Stress, Allostatic Load, and Disease Burden

Social determinants of health are defined as conditions that influence the way people are born, grow, work, live, and age. This range of economic, social, and physical environment factors shape a person’s daily life, impact their access to health care, and influence their health and disease risks. Experiencing continuous stressors such as racism and discrimination, food and/or financial insecurity, and unsafe neighborhood conditions has been shown to contribute to multiple chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, metabolic dysfunction, and depression.11-14

As an example, a recent observational study analyzed data collected from the Black Community Mental Health project in Canada and found that those individuals experiencing a high level of racial discrimination were 36.4 times more likely to present severe depressive symptoms when compared to those reporting a low level of discrimination.15 Also, a 2021 systematic review that included 267 original investigations found that lower socioeconomic status, poor neighborhood health, and high racial discrimination were associated with high levels of allostatic load, the total amount of stress to which one is exposed, and that the cumulative burden of chronic stress was associated with poorer health outcomes.10

Therapeutic Interventions: Tools and Approaches

A patient’s experiences and continuous exposure to stressors are vital pieces of their health story. Social determinants of health are potential antecedents and mediators of physiological dysfunction, and multiple sources of chronic stress experiences may weave throughout a patient’s timeline, impacting multiple life stages.

Collaboration and trust between a patient and practitioner are essential and may be established through underrecognized yet important clinical skills such as prioritizing patient-centered care and considering a patient’s cultural background, traditional lifestyle and diet, and any healthcare access barriers. A therapeutic connection that considers a patient’s health goals as well as all elements of a patient’s story, including the financial, social, and community conditions in which they live, may also increase patient engagement and empowerment when codeveloping a sustainable treatment plan.

More observational and clinical trials are beginning to investigate the efficacy of culturally adaptive interventions that may target social determinants of health for the prevention or management of chronic stress and chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and depression. A randomized controlled trial of 132 African American patients with mild to moderate depressive symptoms compared the changes in depressive symptoms between those patients in the standardized control arm (Coping with Depression [CWD] course) and the culturally adapted treatment group (Oh Happy Day Class [OHDC] course).16 Both groups received either intervention for 12 weeks, meeting at weekly in-person group sessions. Upon evaluation, both interventions reduced depressive symptoms; however, an increased attendance at the culturally adapted intervention showed a greater reduction of symptoms.16 For Black women experiencing chronic race-based stress who are also at risk for cardiovascular disease, studies continue to evaluate the benefits of the stress and coping intervention, the Resilience, Stress, and Ethnicity (RiSE) model that empowers patients, builds mindfulness strategies, and promotes improved coping associated with racism, discrimination, and other sources of stress.17,18 Research studies continue to echo the importance of cultural modifications to health interventions for the improvement of patient engagement and clinical outcomes.

The functional medicine approach honors the individual patient’s health story and experiences in order to help identify root causes of disease and to develop the most appropriate and beneficial health treatment plan. Learn more about functional medicine or find a functional medicine practitioner near you by by clicking the links below.

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  1. American Psychological Association. Stress effects on the body. APA. Published November 1, 2018. Accessed February 5, 2024.
  2. Cardel MI, Min YI, Sims M, et al. Association of psychosocial stressors with metabolic syndrome severity among African Americans in the Jackson Heart Study. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2018;90:141-147. doi:1016/j.psyneuen.2018.02.014
  3. Javed Z, Haisum Maqsood M, Yahya T, et al. Race, racism, and cardiovascular health: applying a social determinants of health framework to racial/ethnic disparities in cardiovascular disease. Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2022;15(1):e007917. doi:1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.121.007917
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  7. Chapagai S, Martyn-Nemeth P. Sleep health, acculturation, and acculturative stress in immigrants in the United States: a scoping review. J Transcult Nurs. 2022;33(3):398-415. doi:1177/10436596211072884
  8. Hollis F, Pope BS, Gorman-Sandler E, Wood SK. Neuroinflammation and mitochondrial dysfunction link social stress to depression. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2022;54:59-93. doi:1007/7854_2021_300
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  11.  Acosta JN, Leasure AC, Both CP, et al. Cardiovascular health disparities in racial and other underrepresented groups: initial results from the All of Us research program. J Am Heart Assoc. 2021;10(17):e021724. doi:1161/JAHA.121.021724
  12.  Parekh T, Xue H, Cheskin LJ, Cuellar AE. Food insecurity and housing instability as determinants of cardiovascular health outcomes: a systematic review. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2022;32(7):1590-1608. doi:1016/j.numecd.2022.03.025
  13.  Hill-Briggs F, Ephraim PL, Vrany EA, et al. Social determinants of health, race, and diabetes population health improvement: Black/African Americans as a population exemplar. Curr Diab Rep. 2022;22(3):117-128. doi:1007/s11892-022-01454-3
  14.  Hankerson SH, Moise N, Wilson D, et al. The intergenerational impact of structural racism and cumulative trauma on depression. Am J Psychiatry. 2022;179(6):434-440. doi:1176/appi.ajp.21101000
  15.  Cénat JM, Kogan C, Noorishad PG, et al. Prevalence and correlates of depression among Black individuals in Canada: the major role of everyday racial discrimination. Depress Anxiety. 2021;38(9):886-895. doi:1002/da.23158
  16.  Ward EC, Brown RL, Sullivan-Wade L, Sainvilma S. A culturally adapted depression intervention for African American adults: an efficacy trial. WMJ. 2021;120(4):273-280.
  17.  Conway-Phillips R, Dagadu H, Motley D, et al. Qualitative evidence for Resilience, Stress, and Ethnicity (RiSE): a program to address race-based stress among Black women at risk for cardiovascular disease. Complement Ther Med. 2020;48:102277. doi:1016/j.ctim.2019.102277
  18.  Saban KL, Motley D, Shawahin L, et al. Preliminary evidence for a race-based stress reduction intervention for Black women at risk for cardiovascular disease. Complement Ther Med. 2021;58:102710. doi:1016/j.ctim.2021.102710

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