How Stress Affects the Body
Stress is inevitable and sometimes it's even necessary. It can facilitate thought into action, be the force of change and progress, and it can motivate us in our day to day lives. The issue with stress arises when it is not managed or channeled into a healthy outcome. When it becomes too frequent of an occurrence it begins to have detrimental effects on our mind and body.
What is Stress?
Stress evolved as an evolutionary mechanism to keep us safe from external threat and danger to our well-being. When we're faced with danger (whether that be real or "perceived" danger), our body goes into "fight-or-flight" mode. This mode keeps us on alert and ready to fight back or flee from the threat at a moment's notice. The adrenal glands pump out the stress hormone cortisol and the hypothalamus releases norepinephrine, a stress hormone and neurotransmitter.
Stress and Gastrointestinal Health
Stress can change the speed in which food empties from the stomach and moves through the digestive tract. These changes often lead to symptoms of heartburn, bloating, constipation, loose stools, stomach pain and nausea. Stomach acid secretion can also decrease, leading to impaired digestion and nutrient deficiencies, as stomach acid secretion is necessary to start the digestive process. Intestinal permeability or "leaky gut" can also develop over time, as the lining of the gut becomes compromised and the gut microbiome balance shifts in response to stress.
Stress and Immune Health
Being in fight-or-flight mode is nutritionally demanding - it requires the use of nutrients like B vitamins, antioxidants, magnesium and more. As the body gets depleted of these nutrients the immune system begins to suffer, as it too requires these nutrients in order to function. Norepinephrine directly suppresses the immune system, while cortisol suppresses the production of our immune cells, which are necessary to fight off viruses and even tumors. Chronic stress also releases pro-inflammatory cytokines, a type of protein that circulates through the body and can cause inflammation in unexpected places, like our joints and muscles.
Stress and Cardiovascular Health
Chronically high cortisol levels raise blood pressure, blood sugar, triglycerides and unhealthy cholesterol levels. This coupled with chronic inflammation becomes a risk factor for heart disease, stroke and blood sugar dysfunction.
Stress and Hormonal Health
Increases in epinephrine and cortisol mess with the body's response to insulin, causing blood sugar regulation issues and in chronic cases can even lead to diabetes. Cortisol also increases fat accumulation around the abdomen, a common sign that hormones are out of balance. Menstrual symptoms like PMS also worsen during times of high stress.
Stress and Mental Health
Some studies show that chronic cortisol levels actually decrease brain mass and weight, while impairing signaling between neurons. These structural changes can negatively affect concentration, memory and mood.
Tips for Managing Stress
Identify your triggers for stress - Tune into what causes you to feel stressed out. Not sure how? Look for moments when you feel an increase in heart rate, difficulties concentrating, or an urge to leave the situation or procrastinate (i.e. "flight"). Once you've identified your triggers you can take steps to address them, remove them or implement stress management techniques following your exposure to them.
Make a list of things that reduce your levels of stress - Simply put, make a list of things that make you feel good! Yoga, walking outside, talking with a close friend or putting on your favorite song are some great examples. If it makes you feel good, it'll bring down your cortisol levels naturally.
Avoid consuming caffeine on an empty stomach - Drinking caffeine without food in your body is a recipe for disaster. If you turn on your stress hormones and put your body in fight-or-flight mode without first giving it the fuel to do so, you will eventually hit adrenal fatigue and feel chronically exhausted. (Hint: if you require caffeine in the morning to get going, you might have some level of adrenal dysfunction already.) You'll feel best on caffeine if you've eaten a balanced meal of protein, fat and carbs before consuming it.
Don't skip meals - While intermittent fasting works for some individuals (that's a whole other blog post), skipping meals can wreak havoc on hormones and stress levels. The best thing you can do for your body is to eat balanced meals 3 x a day and ideally around the same time each day.
Work with a practitioner - If you find that you can't feel energized without caffeine or like you can't make a dent in your stress levels, your body might require some deeper support to get back to a healthy baseline. Working with a practitioner is a great way to receive guidance on how to heal your adrenals, nervous system and increasing your tolerance to stress.