What Stress Does to the Body and How to Manage It

“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can choose how to react to them.”

- Epictitus

Stress! Such an important topic in a fast paced and constantly stimulated world. It is something that science is finding to be a significant factor in wellness and disease. It is important to know the different types of stress before we dive deeper into the effects of it. Acute stress is the response in intense, short durations- typically when you are in a life threatening situation. This type of stress is good, as the body is genius in creating this response if you are in danger. Chronic stress is not this quick burst of energy, but lingers for a prolonged period of time due to external circumstances like if you are having financial issues. There are several social factors in chronic stress.

When the body is stressed, it is in this state known as “fight or flight” significant to when the body is trying to save itself. When this is happening, the adrenal glands are constantly releasing the stress hormone known as cortisol and epinephrine. From here these hormones are carried through the bloodstream to your organs to work hard to save your life. The most targeted organs include the heart, skeletal muscle and arteries- which makes sense because when we are stressed we are tense and our hearts beat faster. When your body is in this state, it is not paying attention to other things like hormone regulation, metabolism, blood-glucose stabilizing, digestion and nutrient absorption. Those things are not relevant to the body during this state, and this is the root of how things eventually go wrong. When an individual is always stressed out and it has nothing to do with saving their life, the body is operating in this same way. Fight or flight. A significant trigger of stress in today's society is excessive technology use, as we are in this constant stimulated state when clinging to our devices.

Some people may not think they are stressed because they don't have a pounding heart. One big signifier of stress is paying attention to how you are breathing. Are you taking short and rapid breaths from your chest? Or do you take slow deep breaths from your belly? Slow short breaths indicate that the body is in this high cortisol state. There are other signifiers like red skin, chest pain, muscle tension, unexplained headaches, skin inflammation, digestive issues, anxiety, lack of concentration and a foggy mind.

The human body is incredibly complex and it would take writing textbook to thoroughly explain the science of stress, For the sake of simplicity, here are the four common things that stress does to the body:

1. Inflammation.

Inflammation is the body's response to try and protect itself from viruses, cuts, foreign bacteria etc. This is known as good inflammation. When the body is in a prolonged state of inflammation, this is where everything goes wrong. When stress hormones are elevated, the body is essentially going “this is not right”, and inflammation occurs to try to protect itself. Not to sound too scientific, but cytokines are released (inflammatory hormone) during this state. Cortisol and cytokines are magnetic. The body goes into a habitual stressed and inflammatory state to the point where it doesn't even know it is occuring. Prolonged inflammation is the root to pain and disease. If you know someone who experiences back pain, knee pain and joint pain, this is all inflammation related. Stress is not the only cause of this, but lack of movement and poor diet as well.

2. Immune System Weakens

Most of the immune system is located in the small intestine, and acts as a barrier for pathogens and toxins to not be released throughout the body. Not only is this significant in virus and bacterial infections, but also a barrier to toxin accumulation which leads to neurotoxicity and disease. Stress hormones lower our immune cells (NK cells) thus making our body more vulnerable to environmental and food toxins. The science of the connection between stress and the immune system is known as psychoneuroimmunology. This is the most important topic when talking about the link of stress to disease.

3. Depression and Anxiety

When excessive stress hormones are released, we go into the inflammatory state, our immune barrier weakens, making our brain more vulnerable to toxins. There is a nerve that travels to the brain, directly from the gut where the immune system lives and where food is absorbed. This is how the brain receives nutrients. It is also how the brain receives toxins. Depression is directly linked to the inflammatory state as our immune system is destroyed making our brain more vulnerable to toxins, thus throwing off our brain hormones like serotonin and dopamine which are our happy hormones. Because the brain also receives food nutrients, how we eat also determines our brain chemistry.

4. Blood-sugar levels

High cortisol levels raise our blood sugar, thus raising our insulin. When this happens over and over again, insulin resistance can occur which is what leads to pre diabetes and type 2 diabetes. The body is trying to use this sugar to fuel the fight or flight mode, so it also naturally starts craving sugar to replenish it. The type of sugar it craves are refined, meaning it goes through the body more quickly. There is a whole science in weight loss in understanding how stress hormones are linked to every other hormone in the body.

That being said, we all get stressed, it is normal. You are not going to die if you are nervous about a test or the scary things going on in our world today. The takeaway here is being aware of how often you are in this state. If you are always stressed and anxious, be more intentional about the activities in your day. Even if it is just for 10 minutes, take the time for your wellbeing.

Moderate phone use (be more strict with yourself when you scroll)

  1. Meditate

  2. Deep breathing multiple times throughout the day

  3. Walk in nature

  4. Yoga

  5. Laugh

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