Stress and Health: How Stress Affects Your Body

stress and health

What is the exact relationship between stress and health? This is the first article in a multi-part series on stress. Through this series, we will share the ways stress impacts your health as well as tips on how to manage stress so it doesn’t run your life. In this first article, we share an explanation on the physical impact of stress.

It is now common knowledge that stress can lead to a number of chronic diseases and health conditions. But in order to manage stress, it is important to understand what goes on in your body when you react to stress. Let’s start by defining stress, or more accurately, the stress response– the body’s attempt to restore balance any time it is thrown out of whack by a stressor. A stressor can be any number of things- an upcoming job interview, a terrible work environment, the flu or even a nutrient deficiency.

The stress response is actually a series of physiological reactions in the body known as the “fight or flight” response. This is regulated by the branch of the nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The brain receives input regarding a perceived stressor and then gets to work, sending signals to just about every organ, blood vessel, sweat gland and muscle in your body. Hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine flood the bloodstream, activating organs throughout the body, causing an increase in arousal, alertness and anxiety. The hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands work together to produce the well known hormone, cortisol.

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Stress and Health: 

The effect of this flood of hormones is increased heart rate, blood flow to the muscles and a release of sugar into the bloodstream. This mechanism was an evolutionary protection during our hunter-gatherer days because it created a flood of energy that allowed us to run fast and quickly escape a predator. It worked back then because we would experience stress, turn on our stress response, run like crazy and use up all that sugar, then relax- given we escaped the hungry tiger!

In today’s fast paced society, people are more likely to activate the “fight or flight” response when reacting to more mundane situations like being stuck in traffic or dealing with a screaming toddler in the grocery store. Depending on your biochemical makeup among other things, your brain may not make much of a distinction between daily psychological and social disruptions and being mauled by a tiger. You can see how this type of chronic stress can put a real strain on your nervous system and adrenal glands.

When you are in a state of perceived stress, and all energy is being diverted to the sympathetic nervous system, your body’s day-to-day bodily functions that promote growth and repair tend to be neglected. This is why digestive issues, skin conditions, brittle hair and nails, insomnia, a weakened immune system and sexual dysfunction are often seen in people with chronic stress. Ultimately, the stress response actually becomes more damaging than the stressor itself. This is particularly true when the stressor is psychological.

Fortunately there are plenty of safe, natural ways to remove the source of stress as well as decrease your body’s response to stress. Upcoming articles in this series will explore ways to address stress through functional medicine, nutrition, lifestyle changes and mindfulness movement practices.

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Dr. Miles Nichols and Dr. Diane Mueller have spoken for the following organizations:

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