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How Stress Affects The Whole Body

Stress manifests so differently for each individual and we all perceive stress in our own unique way. Occasional worry and situational stress is a normal human experience; it's when worry becomes self-perpetuating and uncontrollable that issues start to arise!

When we are challenged and overwhelmed we feel stressed - it is more than just an emotion. There are a plethora of biochemical reactions taking place when we perceive, sense and feel stress.


Stress and Heart Disease

Stress is advantageous, but when activated for too long or too often your primitive fight-or-flight response not only alters your brain chemistry but also damages other organs and cells. In response to a stressor, the adrenal glands release the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. As these hormones surge through your bloodstream at a rapid rate, they travel to your heart. Adrenaline causes your heart to beat faster and can make you feel jittery and out of sorts. These hormones also raise your blood pressure, which over time can lead to hypertension.


Diabetes

Cortisol can also cause the endothelium or inner lining of blood vessels to function abnormally. Research has found that this is an early step in triggering the process of atherosclerosis also known as cholesterol plaque buildup in your arteries! Adrenaline also increases blood glucose for the necessary burst of energy you need to fight or flee. Considering the link between high cortisol and blood sugar dysregulation, glucose can stay elevated, predisposing a person to type 2 diabetes. Thanks, but no thanks, to all of the above!


IBS and Gut Problems

When your brain senses stress alarm bells sound activating your autonomic nervous system. Through this network of nerve connections, your main brain communicates stress to your enteric or intestinal brain and nervous system. Aside from causing butterflies in your stomach, this brain-gut connection can disturb the natural rhythmic contractions that move food through your gut leading to irritable bowel syndrome and can increase your gut's sensitivity to acid, making you more likely to feel heartburn. Via the gut's nervous system, stress can also change the composition and function of your gut bacteria which, as we know, not only affects our digestive health but our overall health, too! It may well be the case that it is not always so important whether the state of stress is reported by the gut or the brain. Both organs are able to use the nervous system and messenger substances in the blood to stimulate the adrenal glands. Yes, your body is that sophisticated, although not exactly the fireworks you want to bring to the party every day!


Stress Can Cause Weight Gain?

As if things weren't already bad enough, stress can also make you gain weight! Seriously?! Here's how. Stress of any kind affects our insulin and cortisol, and when they're not happy they store weight as a protective mechanism! Cortisol affects your appetite - it tells your body to replenish your energy stores with energy-dense foods such as carbohydrates and sugar causing you to crave more of these comfort foods. Sure these guys comfort you in the short term, but in the long term not so much because when you're trying with all your might to burn them off at the gym you won't be having comforting thoughts! High levels of cortisol can also cause you to put on fat as visceral fat, the worst kind of all! This type of fat doesn't just make it hard for you to button your pants, it is an organ that actively releases hormones and immune-based chemicals called cytokines that can increase your risk of developing chronic diseases!

Stress, Immunity, and Toxicity

Stress affects immune cells in a myriad of ways. Initially, they help to fight invaders and heal after injury, however chronic stress can dampen the function of some immune cells making the body more susceptible to infections and slow the rate at which you heal. Stress also increases your pH making it more acidic, which in turn creates more waste and toxins for your body to deal with. While your nervous system is essentially governing what is going on in the body as it prepares to fight off the big scary monster or run away from said monster, your liver and kidneys cannot work efficiently to filter the blood and remove wastes and toxins. Your blood supply has been hijacked by your extremities in an effort to survive. Now, with an abundance of waste and toxins circulating in the body, this places further stress on the body to eliminate them - there really is no escape!

The Remedy

No matter how nice our lives may be, we will all have stressors from time to time. Those who tend to react to such catastrophes by dwelling on their problems will find that our modern world has plenty of quirks and problems to weigh you down! If we engage in it enough, dwelling over problems that we cannot control or change can result in feelings of stress. It becomes increasingly difficult to see anything beyond our own problems, in turn, creating more stress. And before you know it you're caught up in a vicious cycle!

Want to have a long, happy existence? You have to curb your chronic stress! Life will always be filled with stressful situations, but what matters most to your brain and the rest of your body is how you respond to that stress! If you can view challenges that present as obstacles you can overcome and master, rather than threats that pose a life-or-death situation, you will not only stay sane in the short term but you will be much healthier in the long term, too!

 

References

  1. Haddad J, Saade N et al 2002 Cytokines and neuro-immune endocrine interaction: a role for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal revolving axis, Journal of Neuroimmunology, vol.133, pp.1-9
  2. Hechtmann L 2012 Clinical Naturopathic Medicine, Churchill Livingstone, Elsevier
  3. Miller D, O’Callaghan J 2002 Neuroendocrine aspects of the response to stress, Metabolism : Clinical and Experimental, vol.51, pp. 5-10
  4. Lam J et al 2018 Greater Lifetime Stress Exposure Predicts Blunted Cortisol but Heightened DHEA Responses to Acute Stress, Stress Health, pp.2835
  5. Sarris, J Wardle, J 2010 Clinical Naturopathy - An evidence-based guide to practice, Elsevier, Churchill Livingstone
  6. Schneiderman N, Ironson G and Siegel S 2005 Stress and Health : Psychological, Behavioural and Biological Determinants, Annual Review Clinical Psychology, pp.607-628
  7. Vanitallie T 2005 Stress: a risk factor for serious illness, Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental, vol. 51, pp.40-45
  8. Vitetta L et al 2005 Mind-body Medicine: stress and its impact on overall health and longevity, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 1057, pp. 492-505

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