Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, But Stress Is More Likely To

imgresOf the many curious things that I’ve come across as an information-junky, I find it especially fascinating when ancient wisdom seems to mirror modern scientific knowledge. It makes me wonder what observations an early human must have made in order to put into words something that would take millennia for science to prove. Case in point, the link between disease caused by stress and ancient writings from one of Israel’s early kings.

In a book called Psalms, found both in the Torah and the Bible, the beloved King David is credited for writing seventy-three of it’s one hundred and fifty chapters. His writings, which include songs, poems, and prayers, describe a wide range of human emotions, from joy, gratitude and praise, to desperation, fear and anger. The psalms of David tell about his life including precarious circumstances he finds himself in, like hiding from people who are out for his blood, and especially, his steadfast yet complicated relationship with God. Nevertheless, David writes:

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones. (Psalm 17:22)


 When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder, my words became daylong groans. (Psalm 32:3)

Here’s what’s interesting about these passages (besides the fact that they rhyme!)- David is describing painful emotional states, (i.e. broken spirit, perhaps pointing to sadness, and I kept it all inside, possibly meaning stuffing down or hiding one’s feelings). Then, he describes how these states are bad for the bones- they dry them up and turn them to powder. Interesting! In these passages David is linking painful emotions to the degradation of bones. So what does this all mean?

Now, I’m no expert on human physiology but here are some basics on hormones and stress. When we experience stress the hormone adrenaline is secreted, followed by cortisol (cortisol is the one we’ll be looking at here). These hormones are meant to help regulate the body during the fight or flight response, which is a good thing, however, the experience of stress on a regular basis makes for elevated levels of cortisol in the body, which is really a not-so-good thing. The reason is because cortisol triggers bone mineral removal and blocks calcium absorption, which ultimately decreases bone cell growth and therefore decreases bone density. No bueno.

So why does this happen? When the body is under stress, it needs to focus on survival and so it will shut down other functions and focus it’s efforts on things like sending blood to muscles and vital organs in order to flee or fight off the stressor. Ironically, a twenty-first century stressor for a person like me is likely to be something non-life threatening, like being cutoff in the parking lot at Food 4 Less or the sound of my cat Curry crying for my attention.

So, why is this interesting? It’s a curious thing that some of our more painful emotions can trigger the release of stress hormones. And, if in fact high levels of stress hormone lead to greater risk for diseases of the bones, then it’s even more interesting that this condition was described so early in history by way of the historical figure, King David. Not to mention yet another reason to focus on destressing. Spa day, anyone?

Here’s what I’m not saying: science proves that the bible is true! I’m not saying that. I think that there are metaphors and stories and myths and legends and truths in the pages of this holy text that can be life changing when applied; and I also think it’s cool that there are layers of understanding within its passages that perhaps we and it’s original writers never saw coming.


Have you found curious overlaps in science and spirituality? Share them here!

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