Keep Stress From Wreaking Havoc on Your Health

Today, stress has become the new normal, but there is nothing normal or good about prolonged stress when it comes to your mental and physical well-being. That's because your body reacts to stress on many levels, often with serious and far-reaching consequences to your health. The good news is that you can counteract stress and even embrace the sources of moderate stress as opportunities for personal growth.

Everyone perceives and reacts to stress differently. Some people even seem to thrive on stress. The physiologic effects on the body, however, are similar. What's important is to be aware of how stress affects you. This blog will show you where you're at risk and ways you can recover from and grow more resilient in the face of stress.

How Stress Affects Your Body

Long before the ill effects of chronic stress become apparent, cracks in your mental and physical health start to develop. Weight gain, insomnia, feeling wired, but tired, inability to focus, anxiety, irritability, and withdrawing socially are just a few of the early signs.

When you're threatened - be it physically or emotionally - your brain sends a signal to the hypothalamus which initiates the stress response through a cascade of hormones involving your pituitary gland and your adrenal glands. This elaborate system for dealing with stress is called the HPA axis or Hypothalamus - Pituitary - Adrenal Axis.

Your adrenal glands play a major role in the stress response. One of the hormones produced by your adrenal gland is cortisol and it has wide-ranging effects on your entire body: increasing your blood sugar, decreasing inflammation, and increasing your blood pressure. Another hormone is DHEA, which counteracts the effects of cortisol, restoring balance back to your body.

Initially, these actions are essential to your coping with the threat - whether real or perceived. Overtime, however, this response starts to literally breakdown your body.

If the cause of stress is not identified and its effects on your life modified or removed, it can lead to chronic illness. As shown here, every part of your body is susceptible to the effects of ongoing stress:

  • Digestion: Colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic constipation, weight gain

  • Lungs: Asthmna, bronchitis

  • Heart and Circulation: High blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, heart attack, stroke

  • Musculoskeletal System: Arthritis, fibromyalgia

  • Nervous System: Depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder

  • Cognition: Dementia

  • Reproduction: Infertility, erectile dysfunction

  • Immunity: Chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune disease

Lab tests can also reveal how well or how poorly your body is handling stress. Evaluating your adrenal function from saliva samples can show if you are coping successfully with the challenge at hand. Here are a few of the important lab values to consider:

  • Cortisol:

  • Alarm Phase: Elevated levels are seen when you're facing immediate stress, often making you feel restless and wired. If the source of stress is not removed or resolved, your HPA axis loop cycles continuously which eventually leads to an imbalance in the HPA system. Consequently, other systems in your body become affected, resulting in:

  • Anxiety

  • Swings in your blood sugar levels

  • Immune weakness

  • Insomnia

  • Pre-diabetes state involving insulin resistance

  • Resistance Phase: When stress continues to affect your life for long periods of time or when your adrenal glands don't function properly, lab tests reveal cortisol levels that fluctuate erratically.

  • Exhaustion Phase: Your body's supply of cortisol is severely depleted, resulting in:

  • Significant fatigue

  • Depression

  • Hormonal imbalances

  • Increased pain and inflammation in various parts of your body, like lower back pain

  • Severe insomnia

Left untreated, your cortisol supply becomes permanently exhausted, leading to a serious medical condition called Addison's Disease. At this stage, lifelong adrenal supplementation is essential for basic functioning.

  • DHEA: Reduced levels of DHEA reveal you to be in a state of ongoing stress. The unabated stress response forces the continual production of DHEA which is needed to buffer the effects of cortisol. Overtime, your body's supply of DHEA is depleted.

  • Thyroid Hormone: This hormone plays an essential role in many physiologic functions, including your metabolism. Chronic stress causes an imbalance of the HPA axis which can lead to decreased thyroid hormone production and numerous ill effects:

  • Constipation

  • Coarse, dry, and thinning hair

  • Fatigue

  • Impaired memory

  • Menstrual cycle irregularities

  • Pain

  • Puffiness around the eyes

  • Weight gain

How You Affect Your Level of Stress

Self-awareness is the first step in changing and reducing the effect stress has on you. Although there are some stressors which you can't modify, there are many things you can do to lessen their influence on your life. Because your lifestyle can add to your overall stress level, it's essential to understand where you're at risk. Here are four main areas to consider when addressing stress:

  • Eating Habits: Skipping a meal or overeating are both stressful events for your body as they cause swings in your blood sugar level - either too high or too low - which adds an additional burden for your HPA axis. If you continually send your HPA system on a roller coaster ride, your lessen your overall ability to cope with stress and set your self up for serious physical and mental burnout. See our blog on this subject for additional information.

  • Sleep Habits: When life gets busy, sleep is one of the first things that gets cut back. The problem with this response is that sleep is one of your most important tools when it comes to successfully managing stress. Too little sleep can lead to an overproduction of cortisol, producing more damage to your health in a cycle of unending stress. without sufficient amounts of sleep, your immune system is weakened, making you vulnerable to colds and other illnesses like the flu. Quality sleep regenerates your body in many ways:

  • Acts as an antioxidant for your brain by removing free radicals

  • Regenerates connective tissue and skin

  • Numerous hormones and neurotransmitters needed to function effectively are secreted at night while you sleep