Everyone at some point in life has felt stressed, stress can be considered part of life. All animals have stress response, which can save their lives.
The nerve chemicals and hormones released during stressful times, prepares the animal to face a threat or flee to safety.
However, with chronic stress, those same nerve chemicals that are life-saving in short bursts can suppress functions that aren’t needed for immediate survival. Your immunity is lowered and your digestive, excretory, and reproductive systems stop working normally. Once the threat has passed, other body systems act to restore normal functioning.
When stress starts interfering with your ability to live a normal life for an extended period, it becomes even more dangerous. The longer the stress lasts, the worse it is for both your mind and body. You might feel fatigued, unable to concentrate or irritable for no good reason, for example.
The impact on your health
Here are some of the problems chronic stress contributes to:
Heart related problems
Stress can lead to higher blood pressure levels, higher cholesterol levels and smoking, physical inactivity and overeating. Some people may choose to drink too much alcohol or smoke cigarettes to “manage” their chronic stress, however these habits can increase blood pressure and may damage artery walls.
And your body’s response to stress may be a headache, back strain, or stomach pains. Stress can also zap your energy, wreak havoc on your sleep and make you feel cranky, forgetful and out of control.
A stressful situation sets off a chain of events. Your body releases adrenaline, a hormone that temporarily causes your breathing and heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise. When stress is constant, your body remains in high gear off and on for days or weeks at a time. Although the link between stress and heart disease isn’t clear, chronic stress may cause some people to drink too much alcohol which can increase your blood pressure and may damage the artery walls.
According to Bonnie Taub-Dix, the Director of BTD Nutrition Consultants:
“Very often, when people are stressed they may eat inappropriately, If that causes them to gain weight, that can cause even more stress. You wind up causing exactly what you’re trying to alleviate.”
Under stress people crave foods high in fat or sugar, and there are specific hormones involved in this process:
- Serotonin. When we reach for fattening comfort foods during stressful times, it may be an attempt to self-medicate. “When you eat carbohydrates, it raises the body’s serotonin level. Serotonin is the body’s feel-good chemical. It makes you feel better. Not surprisingly, people under stress don’t tend to make smart food choices. Very often the carbohydrates that people go for are laden with fat, like muffins, pastries, doughnuts, and cookies,” Taub-Dix observes.
- Cortisol. Chronic stress can cause the body to release excess cortisol, a hormone critical in managing fat storage and energy use in the human body. Cortisol is known to increase appetite and may encourage cravings for sugary or fatty foods.
- Neuropeptide Y.One study found that lab mice fed a diet high in fat and sugar gained significant amounts of body fat when placed under stressful conditions. Mice fed a normal diet, however, didn’t gain as much weight despite stress. Researchers linked that phenomenon to a molecule called neuropeptide Y that is released from nerve cells during stress and encourages fat accumulation. A diet high in fat and sugar appears to further promote the release of neuropeptide Y.
Higher stress leads to bad food choices, but it also can increase the likeliness of excessive drinking in some people. Higher stress is directly correlated to higher glucose levels.
Scientists have studied the effects of stress on glucose levels in animals and people. Diabetic mice under physical or mental stress have elevated glucose levels. The effects in people with type 1 diabetes are more mixed. While most people’s glucose levels go up with mental stress, others’ glucose levels can go down. In people with type 2 diabetes, mental stress often raises blood glucose levels. Physical stress, such as illness or injury, causes higher blood glucose levels in people with either type of diabetes.
Chronic exposure to stress may lead to the development of a variety of gastrointestinal diseases such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcer disease, IBD, IBS, and even food allergies. Psychological stress slows normal small intestinal transit time, encourages overgrowth of bacteria, and even compromises the intestinal barrier. Chronic stress may therefore play an important role in the development of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and leaky gut syndrome.
How to alleviate stress
- Relaxation techniques: There are several methods to relax, including repeating words and suggestions in your mind, to relax and reduce muscle tension. With progressive muscle relaxation, you tense all your muscles and then slowly start relaxing them. Visualization involves imagining yourself in a relaxing environment, attempting to recreate soothing sensations in your mind.
- Meditation: During meditation, you focus your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress. This process may result in enhanced physical and emotional well-being. Meditation can help carry you more calmly through your day and may improve certain medical conditions.