Fifth Columnist of the Mind

Dolors & Sense

by Sanford Rose 

KISSIMMEE Florida—(Weekly Hubris)—3/12/12—The locution now stirs few remembrances.

It did once. In 1936, four armed columns marched on Madrid.

A fifth within the city stood ready to open its gates to the enemy.

The expression “fifth columnist” was synonymous for the next 20 years with execrable treason.

Our brains routinely perform such an act of sabotage.

The locus of initial treachery is precisely identified. It is the hypothalamus, an almond-sized section of the mid-brain that sits, predictably, below the much-larger thalamus.

The Hypothalamus, and the brain’s hormones, mapped.
The Hypothalamus, and the brain’s hormones, mapped.

It anchors an axis of three organs—the hypothalamus, the pituitary, and the adrenals.

Dysregulation of the HPA axis is responsible for most of the ills that plague us.

An overactive axis produces central obesity, diabetes, depression, hyperthyroidism, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, etc., etc.

An underactive axis bestows post-traumatic stress syndrome, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, asthma, hypothyroidism, etc., etc.

What is the etiology of this perfidious dysregulation?

The axis’s central purpose is to modulate chemically the “flight or fight” response; to proportion a reaction to a stressor that does the least damage to basic metabolic processes.

We all know what stressors are. They can be extrinsic or intrinsic, real or imagined. The mugger on the street; the mugger in our psyche.

When stress surfaces, the hypothalamus chemically emails the pituitary gland corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and arginine vasopressin while simultaneously activating the body’s epinephrine/norepinephrine system.

The pituitary responds by emailing the adrenals adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH).

The adrenals complete the transmission by manufacturing cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone for the needs of the body’s cells.

They also recycle cortisol to the hypothalamus and the pituitary, which, in a negative-feedback maneuver, serves to damp down the initial CRF and ACTH outputs.

If all goes well, the body makes the appropriate response to the stressor and quickly returns to homeostasis.

All does not always go well.

When the body is subjected to continual stress, the modulatory system erodes and breaks down.

For example, when we fall into deep sleep, which lasts only about 30 to 50 minutes a night if we’re lucky, the secretion of cortisol from the adrenals decreases, allowing the body and mind to recover from the day’s flight-or-fight adventures.

But, if our stress is caused by a controlling boss who derides our work performance, then the anticipation of tomorrow’s misadventures, and those of many days thereafter, may prevent us from falling into deep sleep.

The prolonged absence of deep sleep could initiate a positive (read negative) feedback loop of increased cellular cortisol, leading to even more sleep fragmentation, causing still more cortisol.

Chronic hypercortisolism interferes, among other things, with the body’s glucose metabolism, auguring diabetes.

Thus is the chief regulatory axis of the mind persuaded to embark on a path to betraying its master and becoming, as it were, a true “axis of evil.”

Sanford Rose, of New Jersey and Florida, served as Associate Editor of Fortune Magazine from 1968 till 1972; Vice President of Chase Manhattan Bank in 1972; Senior Editor of Fortune between 1972 and 1979; and Associate Editor, Financial Editor and Senior Columnist of American Banker newspaper between 1979 and 1991. From 1991 till 2001, Rose worked as a consultant in the banking industry and a professional ghost writer in the field of finance. He has also taught as an adjunct professor of banking at Columbia University and an adjunct instructor of economics at New York University. He states that he left gainful employment in 2001 to concentrate on gain-less investing. (A lifelong photo-phobe, Rose also claims that the head shot accompanying his Weekly Hubris columns is not his own, but belongs, instead, to a skilled woodworker residing in South Carolina.)