Stress is a reaction controlled by the brain that has both physical and psychological effects. The body shifts its resources to meeting a perceived threat, and when the threat is gone, the stress response subsides. This is called the “fight or flight” response, where the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands to release “stress hormones” such as adrenaline and cortisol. To prepare for action, the digestive system is suppressed and blood glucose levels are increased. The heart beats faster, the blood pressure is elevated, blood vessels to the large muscles and heart dilate, which increases the amount of blood delivered to these parts of the body.
A normal stress response will create an increase in cortisol and adrenaline. Once the threat is gone, the body will return to normal metabolic function, with subsequent drop in levels of stress hormones. The body is well-adapted to intermittent stressors, having evolved in an environment where seasonal weather changes, the need to secure food, and threat from predators and enemies were a normal part of life.
Why Its Important to Deal with Stress
Chronic Stress and Health
However, medical research is finding that in today’s high stress lifestyle, the level of stress hormones often remains chronically high. Where there is repeated acute stress, there is a chronic elevated level of the stress hormones & failure to decrease stress hormones; the body does not return to a normal metabolic function, a condition that contributes to the development of serious health conditions. Chronic elevated stress leads to conditions such as impairment of memory and concentration, weight gain, sleep problems, digestive problems, anxiety, depression and heart disease. Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science has also published about this.
When we experience a stressful situation, the hypothalamus gland in the brain sends a message to the adrenals, which triggers a release of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Responding the stress hormones in the bloodstream, the muscles will tense up, which over extended periods of time often will cause tension headaches, migraines and inflammation. Breathing becomes rapid, which can bring on a panic attack. Chronic stress will lead to hypertension and a significant suppression of the function of the pituitary, sex, and thyroid glands. Immune function is compromised, leading to greater vulnerability to infection and disease. Chronic acute stress can cause inflammation in the coronary arteries; the resulting vascular damage will eventually lead to heart disease.
Stress can affect sleep habits, causing chronic anxiety which may lead to poor health decisions to compensate such as smoking, excessive alcohol, overeating and/or consumption of less healthy junk foods. Less well known is that chronic elevated stress hormones lead to a cascade of serious events that seriously affect health. At some point, the attitude of “just hang in there and tough it out” no longer controls the runaway train; something must be done to heal a metabolism that is running out of control.
Insulin Resistance and Fat Deposits
Elevated stress hormones lead to insulin resistance and the development of visceral adiposity (belly fat). Chronic elevated stress hormones alter the metabolism in such a way that the body stores energy from food as fat, which tends to deposit in the abdominal area.
While a stressful situation – or even meeting a challenging situation that is enjoyable – will temporarily elevate the blood pressure, normally the body will quickly return to normal once the stressful event or activity is past. While the relationship between stress and chronic hypertension may not be direct, medical research shows that long-term elevated stress hormones in the system will damage the arteries and result in heart disease. The Mayo Clinic’s DASH diet can help control hypertension as well.
Bone loss is not a commonly known consequence of chronic stress. Lack of sleep and chronic stress are a consequence of elevated levels of cortisol, one of the main stress hormones. Medical research indicates that chronic high levels of cortisol may lead to bone loss. Women’s Health recently published an article about the relationship between stress, sleep deprivation, and bone loss, with some strategies for stress management, as has Kate Lundemann, Ph.D.
It is very important to understand the negative effect of chronic tension on the immune system, especially those who are inclined to “tough it out” and believe it is best to handle problems on their own. Short-term stress can strengthen the immune system, just as weight-bearing exercise will strengthen bones by stimulating the development of bone density. However, over- exercise will damage muscles and joints, and chronic high stress levels will suppress the immune system. The stress hormone cortisol blocks the production of T-cells, the “boots on the ground” warriors of the immune system. When chronic stress results in a continuing high level of cortisol, our body lacks the immune system resources to sweep the body clear of pathogens.
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