How Stress Affects your Body & Health

Article by our fantastic Jindalee Nutritionist, Maria Mejia
Book in for a consultation on 0425 603 272

Stress is part of everyday life.  It is any demand on the body to adjust, be it negative or positive. Though stress is often viewed as bad, stress can in fact help us thrive.  By embracing stress, and seeking healthy ways to cope with it, we become better at it.  So next time we face a new challenge, we are more resilient and our threshold to stress is higher.  However, when stress becomes chronic or excessively high, that is when stress becomes damaging to our bodies and our health.

So let’s begin by understanding the 3 stages of stress.  The first stage is the alarm reaction, otherwise known as the fight or flight response.

During this stage, fear is the strongest activator, believing that we are in danger.  Nor adrenaline and adrenaline are released by the adrenals in response to stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system by the hypothalamus.  The hormone ACTH is released by the pituitary gland, which triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol.

These hormones signal the body to prepare for immediate physical activity in order to react to the perceived danger.  Your heart rate and contraction increases, blood vessels constrict, and blood sugar levels rise.  Blood is shunted away from the skin and internal organs, except for the heart and lungs, so blood to the muscles and brain increases. Adrenaline also activates pro-inflammatory molecules leading to oxidative stress.  The parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for digestion, relaxation, and reproduction, shuts down, as the body perceives it to be of minor importance in the face of danger.

The second stage of the stress response is the stage of adaptation, in which the stressor has passed and the body either returns to its normal state, known as homeostatis, or it finds a new equilibrium after having adjusted to change.  However, if stress is prolonged or intense, the body may become overwhelmed and will be unable to return to equilibrium.

This is when the third stage of the stress response may occur.  In this stage, the body is unable to maintain hormonal responses, cortisol and adrenaline levels decrease, and physical illness sets in.  This is known as the stage of exhaustion.

Health Effects of Prolonged Stress

Studies now show that chronic stress has a big impact in our health and disrupts the normal function of various body systems, including, but not limited to, digestive, immune, reproductive, nervous system, and cardiovascular system.  Consequently, this may lead to the manifestation of diseases and conditions such as infertility, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and inflammatory bowel disease, among others.

Infertility – Stress suppresses reproductive hormones, consequently inhibiting reproduction.  Precise levels of the hormone glucocorticoid are required for proper function of the reproduction organs.  Stress may lead to disruption of the menstrual cycle in females, whilst in males stress can reduce sperm count, movement and alter shape.

Cardiovascular Disease – It is believed that chronic high blood pressure for blood flow to the brain may eventually lead to heart and kidney failure.

Digestive Disorders – Stress results in changes to the brain-gut axis, ultimately leading to gastrointestinal conditions such inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and food intolerances.  Psychological stress is known to disrupt the barrier of the gut lining, allowing increased entry of unwanted substances, resulting in increased inflammation.  This is otherwise known as leaky gut.

Mood Disruption – An inflamed gut caused by stress not only causes a translocation of microbes and an abnormal immune activation, it has also being shown to affect the enteric nervous system (the ‘second brain’ found in your gut) by damaging nerve cells and altering the synthesis and release of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that help regulate your mood).

Obesity & Diabetes – Increased cortisol stores fat in the abdominal area, decreases the satiety hormone leptin, and increases the hunger hormone ghrelin, inducing increased appetite and food intake.  Stress can influence the development of type 2 diabetes indirectly by promoting obesity and metabolic syndrome.

Thyroid Dysfunction – during stress, thyroid function is usually down regulated.  Levels of the thyroid hormones T3 and T4 decrease, and secretion of the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) is inhibited.

Poor Immunity – Long term stress suppresses immune responses.  It alters the balance of signalling molecules, inducing low grade chronic inflammation and suppressing the numbers and function of immune protective cells.  Chronic stress may increase susceptibility to some types of cancers by suppressing protective T cells.

So as mentioned before, stress is an important part of every day life, as it allows us to adapt and evolve to changes.  However, it is when the stress is prolonged or intense, that it can be detrimental to our health and wellbeing.  So it is critical to develop and practice healthy stress coping mechanisms that will not only prevent disease but also allow us to thrive through stress.

References

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Steptoe, D., & Kivimaki, M. (2013).  Stress and cardiovascular disease: an update on current knowledge. Annual Review Public Health, 43, 337 – 54. doi: 10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031912-114452.

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