In this 5 part series, I will be investigating the impact of stress on various body systems. This first part will look at the impact stress has on the digestive system and the immune system.
Stress is something that we all encounter on a daily basis. Our bodies are designed to respond to stress in certain biological ways. When something triggers a stress response in our body, and these triggers can be physical, emotional, mental or environmental, our adrenal glands release a hormone called Epinephrine, commonly known as Adrenaline, and Cortisol. These hormones cause our heart and breathing to speed up, our blood pressure to rise and muscles to tighten to prepare us for a “fight or flight” response. These bodily responses are designed to allow us to either fight or run away from physical threats.
The problem is that our body doesn’t know the difference between emotional and mental triggers like losing your job or running late for an appointment, and the physical triggers like being attacked or in some sort of danger. We are designed to cope very well with short term physical stress but we are not designed to cope well with the continual onslaught of emotional stress that most people deal with on a daily basis.
This continual release of adrenaline and cortisol can wreak havoc on our body and can lead to many serious health conditions. This 5 part series looks at the organs and body systems that are negatively affected by continuous high levels of stress.
Prolonged high levels of stress effect virtually every part of the digestive system. One of the responses to the release of adrenaline and cortisol is to put the digestive system “on hold”. If a person is in immediate danger and needs to either fight the threat or run, the last thing their body needs to do is focus on digesting food. Blood is diverted away from this temporarily nonessential function and diverted to the heart, lungs and muscles to help with fighting or running away from the danger.
If there is a constant release of adrenalin and cortisol from any form of stress, digestive function is continually being compromised. This leads to a decrease in the number of enzymes required to break down food which leads to lowered nutrient absorption. Stress also causes a decrease in the beneficial gut flora, essential for proper digestion, which allows bad pathogens to take over. These bad pathogens cause inflammation and damage to the intestinal lining, leading to more digestive disturbances including bloating, flatulence, constipation, diarrhoea, poor nutrient absorption, and food intolerances.
High levels of cortisol can also lead to constipation by suppressing the Migrating Motor Complex (MMC), a complex that sends peristaltic waves throughout the digestive tract. These waves help to push waste matter along the colon. When constipation occurs, there is a build up of toxins and bad bacteria which can wreak more havoc on your digestive system.
High stress levels can also lead to diarrhoea by increasing the contractions of the colon. When this happens, a lot of the nutrients from the food we eat are eliminated rather than being absorbed.
The consequences of digestive disturbances eventually affect every other bodily system, so it is essential to retain good gut health.
Because the whole idea of the “fight or flight” response is to allow us to either stand and fight or run from a threat, certain areas of the immune system, just like the digestive system, are also “put on hold”.
From 1982 to 1992 psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and immunologist Ronald Glaser of the Ohio State University College of Medicine, studied the impact of stress on the immune system of medical students. They found that the immune system of the students was compromised every year during their 3 day exams. The number of natural killer cells, which are the cells that fight infection, were lowered and they almost stopped making a protein called interferon, which is a protein released in response to viruses and bacteria.
The research by Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser opened a floodgate of research into the effects of stress on the immune system. In 2004, a meta-analysis of 30 years of studies into the effect of stress on the immune system, published in the Psychological Bulletin, reported “Brief naturalistic stressors (such as exams) tended to suppress cellular immunity while preserving humoral immunity. Chronic stressors were associated with suppression of both cellular and humoral measures.”
Most people are unaware of the impact stress can have on their body. Stress is an inevitable consequence of living in a modern society but it is important to understand the negative impact and to be pro-active in reducing stress as much as possible. Deep breathing, meditation, yoga, exercise and a healthy diet all play a vital role in helping to reduce stress.
If incorporating these relaxation techniques into daily life still doesn’t reduce stress levels sufficiently, there are many wonderful nutrients and herbs that can help to nurture and tone the nervous system and to reduce cortisol levels if they are high. Once the nervous system has been given the support it needs through these nutrients and herbs, it is easier to manage day to day stress through relaxation techniques.
So if stress is getting on top of you and you are finding it hard to work your way back to a relaxed state of mind, seek the help of an holistic practitioner who is experienced at dealing with stress.