How Stress Affects the Body

How stress affects the body

Sitting in traffic. Trying to round up the kids to be somewhere on time. Working towards a quickly approaching deadline. We’ve all experienced stress. Chances are, most of us experience some form of stress on a daily basis. While experiencing stress is a normal part of life, chronic or long term stress can actually cause changes in your body that can negatively affect your health and quality of life. 

When confronted with a stressful situation, your body activates its fight or flight response. This causes the adrenal glands just above your kidneys to release the stress hormone known as cortisol. Cortisol increases the fight or flight response by raising your heart rate, alertness, and energy levels. It simultaneously also decreases any bodily functions not associated with the fight or flight response. 

fight or flight diagram

In addition to initiating the fight or flight response, cortisol is also an important hormone used for functions such as: 

  • Controlling the sleep/wake cycle
  • Boosting energy levels
  • Increasing blood sugar
  • Managing the body’s use of fats, carbs, and proteins
  • Regulating blood pressure
  • Reducing inflammation

Once the stressful situation has passed, cortisol levels stabilize and your body returns to normal and resumes natural functions. However people who suffer from chronic stress tend to have high levels of cortisol. This means that their body spends more time in fight or flight mode rather than normal mode. Since cortisol is also responsible for causing some functions to cease, this also means that high levels of cortisol can affect the aforementioned functions. This can cause a range of health problems like anxiety, depression, problems with memory and concentration, heart disease, headaches, digestive issues, weight gain, and sleeping problems. 

Not only that, but high cortisol levels affect the communication between your immune system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). Research has shown that communication interference between these two structures can increase the risk of chronic fatigue, depression, immune disorders, and metabolic disorders like obesity and diabetes. Chronic fatigue can also occur as your adrenal glands begin to tire and gradually produce less and less cortisol. 

While this may make it seem like all stress is a bad thing, this isn’t necessarily true. Stress can be beneficial, as long as it’s not chronic. To prevent chronic stress, you will first need to learn how to identify when you are experiencing stress and what is causing it. Once you have identified your stressors, or the things that cause stress, you can take steps to reduce or eliminate them. In most cases, it will be impossible to completely eliminate all stressors. Therefore to deal with essential stressors, there are a few stress management strategies you can use. While these strategies may not completely eliminate stress, they have been shown to help you manage your stress levels in a healthier way. Stress management strategies include: 

  • Physical exercise or activity
  • Eating a balanced diet
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Taking a walk or nap
  • Listening to music
  • Meditating
  • Having a healthy social support network
  • Setting aside time for relaxation
  • Playing with a pet

Dr. Clouthier has obtained numerous certifications in various healing techniques such as Nutrition Response Testing, Acupuncture, NueroEmotional Technique, CranioSacral Therapy, and NeuroModulation Technique. He has also taken over 1000 hours in post-graduate training in nutritional and herbal therapies and functional medicine and is currently pursuing an advanced certification from the Institute for Functional Medicine

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