The topic of stress may be the most important thing I ever write about. Nothing impacts my personal health, my clients’ health, and your health more than stress. In this series, I’ll define stress, differentiate between types of stress, and tell you the best ways to recover from the vast effects of chronic stress. Here’s part 1:
A long time ago in this same galaxy and same planet… (My last attempt at a Star Wars joke)…
Stress was an every day part of life. Think of the cavemen chasing after food or running from predators. Either of those are stressful situations. They get your heart beating faster and prepare you for action. Now, we still have these same reactions today. Imagine running to catch a bus or swerving to get out of an accident (not your fault, of course). These are acute stressors (i.e. short term).
However, in modern times, we are under what is known as chronic stress. Think about your day: You wake up to an annoying alarm, you’re rushing to get out the door, traffic sucks, there’s a ton of deadlines at work, you have to worry about what’s for dinner, you sit in traffic again to get home, you lie awake in bed thinking about money problems and how this whole process will start again tomorrow. None of these examples pose imminent danger the way being chased by a lion does, BUT they elicit the same reaction in your body. Let’s talk about that reaction.
The Stress Response
When your body is under stress (whether it’s life threatening or not), a few key things occur. First, the adrenal gland is activated and releases epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline). This, in turn, releases cortisol (our major stress hormone), which raises blood pressure, raises blood sugar, and shuts down the immune system. Finally, epinephrine and norepinephrine cause various physiological responses. These include increased heart beat, slowing of digestion, dilation of pupils, tunnel vision, and relaxation of bladder. As you can see, these are all effects that would help you in a situation of danger. This is called “Fight or Flight Mode.”
It’s not inherently bad to have this fight or flight reaction. It becomes an issue when you’re in this state constantly. This is largely due to the effects of cortisol.
Dangers of Chronic Stress
“Dangers” seems like such a buzz word, but after reading just a few of the effects it can have, you’ll realize that I may still be understating the urgency of this issue.
As I mentioned, cortisol raises blood sugar. Chronic stress means your blood sugar is constantly high. High blood sugar leads to increased secretion of the hormone insulin. Chronically elevated insulin is what causes insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a fancy term for Type 2 Diabetes. This is definitely a simplified version of a very complex system, but a frightening reality nonetheless.
Piggybacking on that, chronically elevated insulin creates chronic inflammation. Diseases that are linked to chronic inflammation include, but are not limited to:
- Heart disease
- Autoimmune diseases (RA, MS, Crohn’s, etc.)
As I mentioned, cortisol shuts down the immune system, allowing for bacteria, parasites, and fungi to infect the chronically stressed host. This is a vicious cycle as the resulting infection is often a cause for further stress on the body. Additionally, many of these infections weaken digestion and cause intestinal permeability, which allows more pathogens to enter the body.
Let’s not forget chronic stress’s effects on brain function. Excess cortisol overwhelms the hippocampus and causes atrophy (break down) or the tissue. The hippocampus is the part of your brain responsible for emotions, memory, and autonomic nervous system function. For this reason, memory loss is a common symptom of chronic stress.
Hormone imbalance (think estrogen dominance, low testosterone), thyroid disorders, and difficulty maintaining a healthy weight can all be tied to chronic stress. The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal pathway which is responsible for stress reactions is closely tied to the production of most hormones in the body. When these organs are overworked, other systems fall out of line to compensate. I will discuss this more in future posts.
To top it all off, cortisol is regulated by an inhibitory feedback loop (i.e. cortisol acts as a messenger to stop the production of more cortisol). However, chronic levels of high stress disrupt this feedback loop, causing a continuous release of cortisol. Again, we see how it can become a vicious cycle.
I wish this was an exhaustive list of all the negative effects of chronic stress, but we’ve only scratched the surface.
Are We Destined for Poor Health?
Absolutely not! If acted upon sooner rather than later, these effects are all reversible and preventable. Your body has an innate ability to repair itself when given the right environment. We can’t eliminate all sources of stress, but we can learn to a) control them and b)better respond to them. This series will cover a wide variety of ways to do these things, including:
- Types of stressors (internal vs. external)
- Stress management basics
- Hidden stressors
- Advanced stress management
- Cortisol pattern evaluation (the key to healing from chronic stress)
So, be sure to come back and read on.
Question: What are some sources of daily stress for you?