Stress is global and pretty much affects us all. How we deal with it depends on our resilience and our individual perception of stress.
Some types of stress “eustress,” can have a positive, motivating effect. However, we often think of stress as distress, which can have negative emotional and physical effects, especially if prolonged.
A stress response is a necessary physical reaction to allow us to “fight” a potential enemy, or alternatively freeze, or run away from that enemy (“flight”).
Stressors may be psychological, physical, or situational. Psychological stressors are often based on fear and anxiety in anticipation of an adverse event or even an uncontrollable environment. Physical stressors include pain, shock, extreme exercise, and heat exposure. Situational stressors, for the most part, are out of our immediate control which in turn amplifies the stress.
Inability to cope with stress can be due to a lack of stress management skills and interventions, chronic or overwhelming stress, an unhealthy lifestyle, and poor nutritional status. Ongoing stress can also increase vulnerability to substance abuse including drugs, alcohol, binge eating, extreme behavior, overspending, emotional outbursts, and feeling helpless or overwhelmed.
Repeated, ongoing stress weakens our health and increases our risk of inflammation, immune dysfunction, autoimmune diseases, premature aging, cognitive decline, metabolic disorders including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and even psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
Biological markers associated with stress reflect the major systems of the body that are involved, e.g., neurotransmitters associated with the autonomic nervous system (epinephrine/adrenaline); hormones associated with adrenal activity (cortisol), and chemical messengers associated with immune system activity (inflammatory cytokines)
Identifying potential stressors, monitoring physical and psychological changes, and intervening with stress management techniques are crucial to addressing stress in a healthy and effective manner. Fortunately, there are several natural interventions that can reduce the negative effects of stress such as healthy diet and lifestyle habits, and targeted nutritional support.
The Body Under Stress
Although individuals may respond to stress in different ways, several physiological responses are common. These include increased availability of energy, oxygen, and strength; decreased appetite, and fertility; and a modulated immune response.
Once the threat has passed, the “relaxation response” or “rest and digest” phase occurs in which heart rate and blood pressure return to normal, breathing slows, and blood flows back to the internal organs (including digestive organs). Digestion resumes, and sweating diminishes.
However, if the stress is sustained, then the relaxation response is delayed. Blood pressure, serum glucose, insulin, and lipids, inflammatory markers, all remain elevated.
Eventually, chronic stress is reflected in low morning cortisol readings and reduced cortisol response to stress. This is often what we know of as “burnout” or complete exhaustion. At this point, our immunity becomes compromised with an increased risk of infection, and our metabolism falters with altered glucose and fat utilisation.
Effects of Stress on the Immune System
Exposure to stress can reduce circulating white blood cells and interfere with their function, possibly impairing overall immunity.
Stress-related cortisol has an immune-suppressing effect which can increase susceptibility to infection. In some cases, stress may enhance the immune-inflammatory response and increase circulating pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Obesity and stress
Prolonged activation of the stress response may promote weight gain, especially visceral adiposity. Chronically elevated cortisol promotes deposition of abdominal fat; decreases leptin signals and satiety; and increases ghrelin signals, appetite, and food intake.
Unhealthy habits associated with burnout include reliance on fast food, lack of exercise, and increased consumption of alcohol and pain killers.
The combination of psychological stress, impaired sleep, increased appetite and cravings, and decreased enthusiasm for physical activity can place someone who is stressed on the road to obesity, metabolic syndrome, increased risk of inflammatory and psychological disorders, autoimmune and chronic disease.
If you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed then find out how Functional Medicine Nutrition can help, book a FREE 20-minute appointment with Dr. Shelley Cavezza, PhD by clicking here.