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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: September 2009

4 - Measuring hormonal variation in the sympathetic nervous system: catecholamines


It is commonplace for people to conceptualize the body's response to stress as an “adrenaline rush,” with the symptoms of this response, as described by Cannon (1915), characterizing the “fight or flight” response. This common understanding of the stress response encompasses one major component of biological stress: activation of the sympathetic adrenal medullary system (SAMS). The other main arm of the stress response, the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal cortex (HPA) axis, will be discussed in the next chapter. Activation of the SAMS has widespread effects in the body. These effects are seen as being allostatic in nature; that is, they help maintain homeostasis through the initiation of physiological change. Measures of stress have been used that identify the indirect effects of SAMS activation such as increased pulse and blood pressure. Other measures, to be examined here, focus on more direct evidence for SAMS activation.

Stress has taken on great importance for humans in the modern world. The most common ailments that threaten us, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even some cancers, apparently are influenced by chronically high stress levels. The response that has allowed our ancestors to adapt to the stressors that were part of their world now appears too often to be an inappropriate one for the kinds of stressors, from traffic to deadlines, that confront us today (Sapolsky, 1994).

The stress response represents adaptation to actual or perceived challenges from the environment, with this process termed “allostasis” (McEwen, 1998).

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