Stress is the body’s reaction to harmful situations — whether they’re real or perceived. These situations can be physical, mental, emotional or environmental. Stress is a normal part of life and can actually be good for the body. For example, when the immune system is stressed by a foreign invader, it jumps into action and fights that invader. If our immune system was never stressed, it would not become strong. Stress also primes our body for the “fight or flight” response, which allows us to react quickly in dangerous situations. During the stress response, your heart begins to race, breathing speeds up, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. All of these responses help you to react quickly.
It is when the stress, whether it originates from environmental, physical, mental or emotional issues, becomes ongoing that it can wreak havoc on our body.
Dr. Paul Rosch, MD, President of the American Stress Institute states “… it’s difficult to think of any disorder in which stress has not been shown to have an aggravating role”.
Following are just some of the effects stress can have on our bodies…..
When the body becomes stressed, the adrenal glands, located just above the kidneys, release hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. It is these hormones that help our body to cope with stressful situations. The adrenal glands can cope with short bursts of stress, but when we bombard our body with continuous stresses – lack of sleep, over working, anxiety, emotional issues – the adrenal glands can become overworked. When this happens, we can suffer from what is known as “adrenal fatigue”. The adrenal glands then cannot release enough of the stress hormones, leading to, amongst other things, fatigue, low libido, alterations in the way the body metabolises food, an inability to cope with stress, anxiety and depression. Interestingly, salt cravings, together with other signs and symptoms, can be an indication your adrenal glands are fatigued.
Hippocrates, known as “the father of medicine” is quoted as saying that “all diseases begin in the gut”. It is also widely known that stress affects virtually every aspect of the digestive system and is a trigger that causes many disease processes to begin.
The digestive system is often referred to as a “second brain”. In fact the brain and the digestive system are created from the same tissue and are connected via the vagus nerve. It is this brain/gut connection that causes so many digestive issues when people are stressed.
One of the body’s reactions to stress is to divert blood from the digestive system to the limbs – so we can run from imminent danger. Up to 4 times less blood flows to the digestive system during periods of high stress. This in effect “shuts down” the digestive process. In short bursts the digestive system can cope, but continued stress can lead to decreased enzyme output, which means decreased absorption of nutrients. It can also cause constipation or diarrhoea by affecting the muscles of the colon and creating an imbalance of the flora in the gastrointestinal tract.
Increased acid production, leading to heartburn, can also be caused by high levels of stress.
Continued stress can also to lead to inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract which can lead to and exacerbate conditions such as inflammatory bowel diseases, celiac disease, ulcers and many other chronic diseases.
There is mounting evidence that shows that people who experience long term stress and/or traumatic events have higher rates of cardiac problems than the general population. The release of the “fight or flight” hormones raises blood pressure and increases the heart rate, which puts added stress on the heart. These hormones also release fat into the blood stream for extra energy, which can in turn raise cholesterol levels. Chronic stress also influences fat distribution, depositing more fat in the abdominal area, which is considered a risk factor for heart disease.
Part of the “fight or flight” response to stress is to increase muscle tension, which readies the body to either stay and fight or run. This muscular tension, when it affects the neck and shoulder area, often leads to “tension headaches”. Rather than slow down and relieve stress, people more often head for the pain relief medication, which puts immense stress on the liver and kidneys.
80% of your immune system is located in the gastrointestinal tract. So when prolonged stress leads to inflammation of the gut and an imbalance of the flora it can have a profound effect on our immune system. Research has shown that prolonged levels of stress can cause auto immune diseases, increased risk of infection and increased risk of catching the common cold and flu.
In particular for those who are experiencing prolonged stress, it is essential to replenish the good flora in our gut with a quality pro biotic and to reduce the amount of sugar and refined carbohydrates in the diet, because these are the foods that feed the bad bacteria.
Continued levels of high stress can raise leptin levels in the blood stream. Leptin is a hormone that is produced in fat cells and travels to the brain to control metabolism, hunger and feelings of satiety. When leptin levels are sufficiently high, the brain signals that there is no need to eat as much because you have enough stored energy. Your metabolism also increases when leptin levels rise over a certain threshold.
When there is too much leptin in the bloodstream, it can lead to leptin resistance, where the brain becomes resistant to the leptin and doesn’t receive the signal to curb the appetite and increase metabolism, which leads to weight gain.
Cortisol also decreases the level of hormone called adiponectin, which is responsible for suppressing appetite and speeding up metabolism, amongst other roles.
Many of us would have experienced tossing and turning at night, desperately trying to sleep but unable to because of a racing mind, stress and anxiety. The effects of insomnia are more far reaching that just being tired the next day. Chronic insomnia can lead to weight gain, lowered cognitive function, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and a myriad of other conditions. Research has shown that lack of sleep also greatly increases your chance of an accident.
There are many skin conditions that are exacerbated by stress. Acne, eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis, rosacea can all be triggered or made worse by stress. When cortisol is released into the blood stream, it increases the oil production in your skin which can make pimples and acne worse. Cortisol also dilates the blood vessels, leading to redness, and aggravating conditions such as rosacea. Prolonged cortisol release causes inflammation throughout the body, further worsening skin conditions.
Asthma can be a life threatening condition and although stress cannot “cause” a person to become asthmatic, it is often a trigger for an attack. When people become stressed it causes a constriction of the muscles of the body, including the smooth muscles of the lungs. It is this tightening of the lung muscles that can trigger, or exacerbate, an asthma attack.
As mentioned above, the immune system can be compromised by continued stress which can trigger autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Whilst there are many factors that contribute to rheumatoid arthritis, continued stress can definitely be a contributing factor. Patients often report that they have experienced a trauma or prolonged stress prior to the onset of the disease. Some research has shown that people with rheumatoid arthritis have experienced higher stress levels and traumatic events, such as divorce, job loss, death of a loved one, 6 months prior to the onset of the disease than the general population.
Cortisol (released into the blood stream during period of stress) is actually an anti flammatory hormone, but the continued release of cortisol into the blood stream reverses its anti inflammatory action and creates inflammation throughout the body. As with rheumatoid arthritis, the onset of osteoarthritis is multi faceted, but continued stress levels which result in inflammation throughout the body, contributes to and worsens the arthritis and any other inflammatory diseases.
So the next time you are feeling stressed and anxious, rather than just “live with it”, be pro active and look after your health by reducing those stress levels as much as possible.
By Andrea Southern, Naturopath, Nutritionist, Herbalist at Stafford and The Gap in Brisbane. For an appointment phone 0412 791 705