Nowadays, just about everyone is stressed.
Work stress, family stress, friend stress, financial stress – the triggers for emotional and mental stress are abundant and strong in our society. I’m sure one of those rings true for you.
But then there’s the lesser-known stressors. Things that remain beneath the surface. Things like viruses and bacteria, low-grade inflammation, food intolerances or allergies, exercising to excess, environmental toxins, and more.
Our bodies are constantly undergoing exposure to physical and mental/emotional stressors. Even when we don’t realize it.
It’s time to wake up to how much we may be sabotaging our health.
Here are four ways stress can affect our health:
1. Stress has been linked to illness
Although we are well aware of stress’ impact on our health, we often brush it off and overlook it. If it’s not making us sick today, it’s easy to convince ourselves we’ll be healthy forever.
Unfortunately that’s not always the case.
Chronic stress creates inflammation in our body. Inflammation has been linked to numerous diseases including diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune diseases and even cancer. Inflammation aside, many people turn to poor unhealthy habits when they’re stressed out in a way to cope with the stressor. Smoking, drinking alcohol, binge-eating on sugar and other junk food – these are all examples of common coping mechanisms and can lead to illness. Without taking care of chronic stress, we put ourselves at a higher risk of disease.
2. Unresolved chronic stress can trigger Adrenal Fatigue (or HPA axis dysfunction)
Here’s the truth, I’ve burnt out twice in my life. Both times I reached the “exhaustion” stage of adrenal fatigue. My body just didn’t want to function anymore. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, anxious and not my normal self.
Adrenal fatigue (or more correctly termed HPA axis dysfunction) is a common term to describe a state that is becoming more and more prevalent. It’s a state that your body can achieve when under long-term chronic stress. This is what happened to me twice.
Your adrenal glands are responsible for secreting your body’s stress hormones – cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones help you respond to stressors. However, if the stressors end up being around for a long time, your body’s response may change. You may start producing too much cortisol, or you may end up producing too little cortisol. Regardless of the amount, if it’s out of balance you will experience adrenal fatigue symptoms.
These symptoms can be anything from exhaustion, dizziness, anxiety, depression, low blood pressure – to insomnia, difficulty waking up in the morning, feeling “wired” but “tired”, and inability to take on more stress. If you don’t take care of yourself when you begin to experience these symptoms, you risk making the adrenal fatigue worse and eventually crashing.
3. Stress affects our digestion and absorption
Stress affects how we digest and absorb the food that we eat. This specifically affects our gut health, but can have an impact on our overall health as well.
When we are stressed out, our bodies are in a state of “fight or flight”. In this state, our body takes our blood and nutrients and sends it to our muscles in preparation of survival (fight or flight). Even if this stress is as small as an unexpected electricity bill.
When your body is in this state, it doesn’t support digestion and absorption. We need to bring our bodies into a state of relaxation in order to achieve this.
If we eat when we’re stressed out, our digestive system doesn’t function properly. This can result in digestive distress like gas, bloating, dysbiosis and even leaky gut. Because our food isn’t digested properly, we aren’t able to absorb the nutrients that we need to thrive. When we’re chronically stressed, we tend to need more nutrients to manage the stressors, so without the appropriate support, we can deplete our reserves faster.
4. Excess stress alters our brain structure and function
Cortisol, our main stress hormone, leads to an overabundance of one of our neurotransmitters, glutamate. Glutamate creates free radicals that can damage our brain cells. In addition, cortisol halts the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is known to stimulate the growth of new brain cells. Basically we damage the cells we already have, and then don’t give new ones an opportunity to grow.
Stress targets the hippocampus of the brain, which is responsible for memory, learning and emotional regulation. The presence of stress can kill or shrink new neurons, having an impact on decision making, memory and emotions. Both times I burnt out, my memory was embarrassing. I’d be mid-sentence and forget what I was saying. This is one of the scarier symptoms of excess stress, because you start to wonder if you’re losing your mind.
Stress also depletes neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which are known to trigger feelings of happiness, reward and motivation. This is one of the reasons why those who are stressed are more likely prone to feeling depressed, anxious and unfocused. It’s another reason why we may reach for addictive substances like alcohol, sugar and drugs, as they can provide a high by temporary boosting our dopamine levels.
Chronic stress should always be addressed
Although we like to bury our head in the sand and pretend everything is okay, there are very real consequences to unmanaged stress. Learning healthy ways to manage your stress and reducing the amount of stress on your body is paramount to setting the foundation for a balanced life.
It’s time that we honour where we’re at, and recognize the importance of stress-management and self-care. These two concepts are key when it comes to achieving optimal health, and ultimately, achieving balance.