What is Stress?
Stress is a feeling we all experience when we are challenged or overwhelmed. More than an emotion, stress is a physiological response the body creates in reaction to a stressful situation. A stressful situation can be something environmental, like getting pulled over, or psychological, such as persistent worry about not having enough money. Both will trigger a release of stress hormones that result in physiological changes throughout the body. The combination of these responses is known as the 'fight or flight' response, a survival mechanism that enables humans to fight or flee from life-threatening situations. The fight-or-flight response releases stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine. These hormones give the body the energy, stamina, and strength needed to combat the stressor. The body cannot differentiate between the different types of stressors and can overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as a deadline at work or a fight with a spouse. Stress is a handy tool in acute situations, but it can be detrimental to the body when stress appears chronically. The body has to completely accommodate when stress is present, by taking attention and energy away from other systems and putting it towards combating the stress. It is unlikely we will be able to avoid stress forever, so it is essential that we take measures to support and protect the body. (1.) (6.)
How Stress Affects Major Systems
The respiratory system is what distributes fresh oxygen throughout the body and removes carbon dioxide waste. When stress is present, the airways and lungs constrict, resulting in shortness of breath and rapid breathing. For those with preexisting respiratory conditions, such as asthma or chronic bronchitis, increased stress will exacerbate these conditions. People prone to panic attacks are more vulnerable to an attack when experiencing a stressful state. Practicing deep, slow breaths can help relieve some symptoms and bring calm to the nervous system. (1.)
The gut and brain are always in constant communication; the gut is often referred to as the 'second brain,' containing hundreds of millions of neurons. Chronic stress has a direct effect on the gut-brain axis and can result in physical symptoms such as bloating, gas, nausea, and other gut discomforts. In turn, the dysbiosis of the gut can increase the likelihood of stress. The gut contains millions of bacteria; when the bacteria get disrupted ( from low-quality diet, alcohol, and medications), it can negatively impact emotions and mental clarity. Stress can affect digestion and the body's ability to absorb nutrients. Those who already experience chronic gut conditions IBS, Celiacs, and others, are at higher risk of experiencing these symptoms when under stress. Cortisol can activate appetite, as it is telling the body to replenish its energy stores with energy-dense foods and carbs, which results in craving comfort foods. (1.)
When stress occurs, the cardiovascular system responds with dilating blood vessels, increased heart rate, and more robust pumps from the heart to get more blood quickly. This reaction is what gives the body the strength to fight back and is works perfect for acute situations. However, if this occurs consistently over time, it is hard on the cardiovascular system and can lead to an increased risk of hypertension, heart attack, or stroke. (1.)
Stress can cause a decrease in the immune system's functioning; chronic stress lessens the body's ability to fight off infection even more. Hormones released during the stress response can negatively affect the number of lymphocytes, white blood cells, produced. (2.)(3.)
It is nearly impossible to avoid stress. There are stress management strategies that support the body and improve well-being. Stress management strategies include:
Important: Before adding anything new to your health care routine, it is best to consult with your health care provider. Dr Kizzy offers free 15 minute consultations, if you have any further questions!
A. (n.d.). Effects of Stress on the Body. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress/index
Mcleod, S. (1970, January 01). Stress, Illness and the Immune System. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/stress-immune.html
Morey, J., Boggero, I., Scott, A., & Segerstrom, S. (2015, October 1). Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465119/
Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010, January 19). Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3991026/
Publishing, H. (n.d.). 5 ways to de-stress and help your heart. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/5-ways-to-de-stress-and-help-your-heart
Publishing, H. (n.d.). Understanding the stress response. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response