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July 7, 2014 8:52 PM   Subscribe

The secret history behind the science of stress. Hans Selye, the "Father of Stress," first coined the idea of "stress" and wrote 1700 articles and 39 books, was nominated for the Nobel Prize 10 times, and received the Order of Canada, one of the country's highest honors. He also, Mark Petticrew discovered, received major funding from the tobacco industry for his research. Tobacco executives hoped he might offer reasonable scientific alternatives for the link between heart disease and smoking. He obliged, writing, "While some scientists have associated cigarette smoking with heart disease, it is reasonably [here, the word “reasonably” has been deleted, and the word “certainly” inserted] clear that a number of other factors including life-style, blood pressure, biochemistry, genetics and in particular, stress, may also be involved."

Petticrew reports that the tobacco industry funded a great deal of the research into stress, including the idea of the Type-A personality. According the NPR story, "The thing most people don't realize as they worry over the dangers of stress, Petticrew says, is that much of this foundational scientific research on stress was funded and guided by a very particular sponsor."
posted by jaguar (26 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
"But some scientists now argue that our usual narrative of stress — that stress is universally bad for health — is too one-sided and doesn't reflect the reality that some degree of stress can actually benefit people. Stress isn't always a bad thing."

That's what Selye also said. Nothing new. His point was that long term, chronic stress can potentially overwhelm our body's ability to adapt and that created predictable physiologic changes, largely independent of the specific stressor.

Have a smoke, mull it over. Just don't get addicted. Ah... there's the rub.
posted by noaccident at 9:02 PM on July 7


I like smart people. But when I see smart people doing things like this, I realize that they have used a rare power that other people do not possess to do something horrible.

What a horrible scientist. I wish there was an update of Dante's Inferno and this guy (and all other scientists who do shit while in the pocket of you-name-it) could be in one of those horrible latter, even-numbered bolgias in the seventh circle.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:13 PM on July 7


Also, by identifying "Type-A" and other specific personalities, he helped the tobacco companies figure out who to focus their marketing toward, right?
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:43 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I feel vindicated by this; I've been alienating my friends for years by saying things like 'stress, what's stress? Just the latest bullshit term people use when they don't want to know what the cause is.'
posted by jamjam at 9:47 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I don't think Sapolsky was funded by BicBac:

Stress, Portrait of a Killer
posted by dragonsi55 at 9:57 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Also, by identifying "Type-A" and other specific personalities, he helped the tobacco companies figure out who to focus their marketing toward, right?
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:43 PM on July 7 [+] [!]


Children?
posted by basicchannel at 12:15 AM on July 8 [3 favorites]


My question is, do they want us to believe that "life-style, blood pressure, biochemistry, genetics and ... stress" are not related to heart disease?
posted by trombodie at 12:49 AM on July 8


Well, this was a bummer. I read The Stress of Life in '61. It was given to me by someone I admired, and it seemed to make sense to me. Stress as Selye wrote of it became one of the things I took into consideration as life went on. Back then big tobacco's perfidy was just beginning to ooze into view. The letters to and from Selye referenced in the Petticrew article are cut and dried (so to speak). It doesn't look to me, from these articles, like Selye was out and out fabricating things for BT to use, but he clearly was amenable to representing his findings in a way that benefited the people with the checkbooks.

I'm too old to be surprised, but it's still kind of dispiriting, you know?
posted by carping demon at 1:22 AM on July 8 [4 favorites]


I wish there was an update of Dante's Inferno and this guy (and all other scientists who do shit while in the pocket of you-name-it) could be in one of those horrible latter, even-numbered bolgias in the seventh circle

Surely he's already covered among the fraudulent sinners down in the ditches.
posted by thelonius at 2:03 AM on July 8


I'm sure him and Tom Midgley Jr. are having a grand ol' time.
posted by basicchannel at 2:50 AM on July 8


Fascinating, great find Jaguar!
posted by smoke at 3:14 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]


It's always disappointing when this kind of story comes out, because it becomes immediate ammunition for the anti-evolutionists and climate change deniers to say that science is all corrupt and in the pockets of big money. And sometimes it obviously is, and that's crappy. The story I heard on the radio said that he had been nominated for the Nobel ten times; I wonder if these revelations will mark a big turning point in his scientific reputation or not?
posted by Dip Flash at 4:42 AM on July 8


With human health and body I've always wondered how it divides stress and straining into two types of stories:

1) Behaviour/substance X creates a strain for Y, which helps to toughen Y against future challenges.
2) Behaviour/substance X creates a strain for Y, which damages Y.

Both stories become very intuitive and plausible, and difficult to dislodge once they gain hold. In some 19th century novels much studying is treated as a type 2 case, whereas in our times it is praised with story 1. With physical training there seems to be general view on 1, but with many specific cases of what you shouldn't do because of 2. There is a legitimate question if emotional stress is always (2) or can it be (1) with some conditions. Same as with tobacco, alcohol, radiation, bacteria, drinking small doses of poisons, virii, exercise, sun, meditation, sauna, cold showers etc. In some cases the problem is quite decisively solved (tobacco). Before the full mechanism is known, it is easy to stick into 1 or 2 and keep it simple as that, doh.
posted by Free word order! at 5:42 AM on July 8 [4 favorites]


This is fascinating.

I love that Type-A started as a basically marketing term.
posted by postcommunism at 5:58 AM on July 8


With human health and body I've always wondered how it divides stress and straining into two types of stories:

1) Behaviour/substance X creates a strain for Y, which helps to toughen Y against future challenges.
2) Behaviour/substance X creates a strain for Y, which damages Y.


There's essentially no difference, though. X is an agent which damages Y (temperature, exercise, iocane); the body responds by altering its chemistry to minimize that damage, and if the concentration of X is below some critical value, Y builds a tolerance to X. Selye, "A Syndrome Produced By Diverse Nocuous Agents" (1936).
posted by disconnect at 6:07 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]


On the whole, I'm in favor of legalizing some of the drugs that are now illegal. But it occurs to me that if we allow vendors of such things to become rich and large, they'll probably end up doing the same underhanded things the tobacco people did, with similar, surprisingly long-term consequences.
posted by Western Infidels at 6:11 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]


It's always disappointing when this kind of story comes out, because it becomes immediate ammunition for the anti-evolutionists and climate change deniers to say that science is all corrupt and in the pockets of big money. And sometimes it obviously is, and that's crappy.



But was his research fundamentally sound? Smoking undeniably contributes to heart disease, but so do other things (like diet!). Does it reeeeeally matter where the funding comes from as long as the findings replicate? (I have no idea if they do it not.)
posted by selfish at 6:36 AM on July 8 [2 favorites]


The NPR piece said,
"There have been very few studies which have actually shown that Type A behavior is a risk factor for illness, certainly for coronary heart disease," Petticrew says. "Of the studies that do show that, and there are only four, in three of them the researchers had some contact or money from the tobacco industry. That's not to say, and absolutely shouldn't be said, that all Type A behavior research is tainted by tobacco money. But it has had a major skewing effect on the field which I think has been completely unrecognized."
So Petticrew, at least, is arguing that the Type-A personality findings have not been replicated in satisfactory ways. And it doesn't sound like he's arguing that stress is unrelated to physical health, just that it's almost impossible to separate our assumptions about how that works without using the narrative given to us by the Tobacco Industry.
posted by jaguar at 6:47 AM on July 8


Or the conclusion of Petticrew's paper:
Our findings also point to the tobacco industry's broader interests in research in to the social determinants of health. For example, there are many industry documents relating to unhealthy lifestyles, and in the 1990s British American Tobacco–funded research on fetal programming. This suggests the need for further analysis of the extent to which the tobacco industry has played a role in funding contemporary public health research. These findings relating to Hans Selye also have wider implications, given similarities between tobacco industry strategies and those used by the food industry, including disputing the science, focusing on issues of personal responsibility, and using paid scientists to attempt to influence key decision-making bodies. The case of Selye, therefore, has implications, not just for how the tobacco industry sought to influence research on stress but also for understanding corporate influences in general on public health research and policy, and it strengthens the case for improved disclosure of all industry influence on research.
posted by jaguar at 6:49 AM on July 8


Nitpick: The Order of Canada is actually Canada's highest civilian honour, period, though there are three grades. Not one of. Recent receipients include Mefi favourite Chris Hadfield, and Rick Mercer.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:32 AM on July 8


In the same sentiment as "Absolute power corrupts, absolutely," I propose "Private funding corrupts research, absolutely."

Currently, much of pharmaceutical (and who knows what other fields - conspiracy theories abound!) research is funded and conduced by private funding (from the pharmaceutical companies). I personally believe that it is all corrupted. Not "Wrong" or "Incorrect" necessarily, but corrupted in that we don't know if, where, or how much of the results are distrustworthy.

I trust corrupted research as much as I'd trust a doctor who said "This medicine fell on the floor." The fact that some dirt or bacteria *could* have gotten into it is sufficient for me to insist on clean, fresh, and correct medicine. Same with research.

I wish that the scientific community could stand up for its principles and expel corrupted researchers. I don't know that that's going to happen, though. But, I think that a huge step in the right direction is if the government were to open the floodgates of scientific funding while simultaneously massively increasing the rigor of FDA approval requirements.
posted by rebent at 9:52 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]


Always upsetting when you're reminded that you can't trust anyone. :(

As for this: 'stress, what's stress?'

Chronic high levels of glucocorticoids. That's what I mean when I talk about chronic stress. That's still real and bad for you. When it turns out Sapolsky's research is invalidated then I'll rethink stress. But the detrimental effects of high glucocorticoids are still blatantly obvious to someone taking prednisone long term or with Cushings. It's not as if stress doesn't exist anymore because this guy was corrupt.

This "type A" personality research though, bullshit through and through.
posted by bobobox at 10:56 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]


Chronic high levels of glucocorticoids. That's what I mean when I talk about chronic stress. That's still real and bad for you. When it turns out Sapolsky's research is invalidated then I'll rethink stress. But the detrimental effects of high glucocorticoids are still blatantly obvious to someone taking prednisone long term or with Cushings.

Actually, bobobox, taking exogenous glucocorticoids over the long term tends to suppress one's own adrenal cortex activity
In addition to the effects listed above, use of high-dose steroids for more than a week begins to produce suppression of the patient's adrenal glands because the exogenous glucocorticoids suppress hypothalamic corticotropin-releasing hormone and pituitary adrenocorticotropic hormone. With prolonged suppression, the adrenal glands atrophy (physically shrink), and can take months to recover full function after discontinuation of the exogenous glucocorticoid.
and endogenous glucocorticoids are never produced except as one ingredient of an entire cocktail of hormones produced by the adrenals, and I think the other hormones in the cocktail probably very significantly ameliorate the bad effects any one would have by itself.

But speaking of stress, there was a very interesting recent study of the relationship of stress to heart attacks and strokes:
Bacteria help explain why stress, fear trigger heart attacks

"Our hypothesis fitted with the observation that heart attack and stroke often occur following an event where elevated levels of catecholamine hormones are released into the blood and tissues, such as occurs during sudden emotional shock or stress, sudden exertion or over-exertion" said David Davies of Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York, an author on the study.

Davies and his colleagues isolated and cultured different species of bacteria from diseased carotid arteries that had been removed from patients with atherosclerosis. Their results showed multiple bacterial species living as biofilms in the walls of every atherosclerotic (plaque-covered) carotid artery tested.

In normal conditions, biofilms are adherent microbial communities that are resistant to antibiotic treatment and clearance by the immune system. However, upon receiving a molecular signal, biofilms undergo dispersion, releasing enzymes to digest the scaffolding that maintains the bacteria within the biofilm. These enzymes have the potential to digest the nearby tissues that prevent the arterial plaque deposit from rupturing into the bloodstream.

According to Davies, this could provide a scientific explanation for the long-held belief that heart attacks can be triggered by a stress, a sudden shock, or overexertion.
In essence, bacterial biofilms live in atherosclerotic plaques and monitor your blood for stress hormones, and disperse when they detect high levels, presumably because those high levels have an immunosuppressive effect, and that makes for the best chance of establishing new biofilms in other locations.

But when they do that, it also disrupts the plaque, and all that junk causes a heart attack or a stroke.

But there's a paradoxical implication here.

The bigger the plaque the bigger the danger of a heart attack or stroke, and the worse it's likely to be, and we know that plaques tend to grow slowly over time.

What if a person with a tendency to develop these plaques in the first place were to have very stressful experiences at relatively short intervals?

Then his or her atherosclerotic plaques might never get big enough to be dangerous.

And the problem then may not be chronic stress-- it might be chronic lack of stress punctuated by very stressful events separated by long intervals.
posted by jamjam at 12:24 PM on July 8


jamjam, you're speculating way, way beyond what is supportable from a single paper. The original makes it very clear that bacterial biofilms are just one potential new factor in how we think about atherosclerosis, which has a ton of other contributing factors with significant epidemiology backing them up, ranging from diet to inflammation.

In biology in particular, it's very easy to come up with plausible-sounding hypotheses of this sort that still turn out to be totally false, because there are so many potentially relevant variables, and so few broadly-applicable but still predictive models.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:34 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]


jamjam, you're speculating way, way beyond what is supportable from a single paper...

or what's a Metafilter for?

But your points are good, and I'm glad you made them.
posted by jamjam at 1:46 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]


jamjam, I do understand how the HPA axis works.

I would be interested to read more about this statement though: "I think the other hormones in the cocktail probably very significantly ameliorate the bad effects any one would have by itself"
posted by bobobox at 2:02 PM on July 8


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