Stressed to the Max- Pt 2

Modern day stresses are everywhere. In fact, stress and worry are a part of our daily and weekly routines. Many people stress regularly before bed, or in traffic, or around certain groups of people. Even seasonally, we joke about the stressful holidays. We accept these routines of chronic stress but don’t always consider the impact it can have on your physical body and mind. Let’s do a quick review of how your body deals with acute stress and then investigate how chronic stress can actually damage your body.

When faced with a instantaneous threat your body’s stress response system leaps into action.  A series of hormonal changes raise the heart rate, pump blood to your muscles and amp up your clarity and focus to respond.  (See post 1 for details.) This amazing response system helped us escape predators thousands of years ago, and today, helps us jump to attention when a car is swerving ahead of us on a busy road.

Although our bodies are equipped to handle acute stress, what happens to your body’s stress response systems when acute stress becomes chronic stress?  

Examples of chronic stress include:

  • Anger or anxiety over work issues
  • Worrying or engaging in social media arguments or concerns
  • Looming financial bills or debt
  • Family challenges or disagreements
  • Politics- in the form of social media, tv, podcasts, radio, newspaper
  • Repetitive diets
  • Over-exercising

You get the idea, modern life is a series of chronic stresses.  The problem for our bodies is that our hormonal system doesn’t understand that every night before you go to bed you like to worry about the next day’s tasks or that you really need this promotion to pay for your credit card debt or children’s education.   Your body feels stress..aka tiger in part 1 blog post…and your hormonal system responds. What happens to your body when your stress hormones remain elevated?

According to the American Psychological Association, your physical body is impacted by stress in an number of ways.[note]www.hormone.org/hormones-and-health/hormones/adrenaline[/note]

Muscle Stress

Muscle tension is a reflex reaction to stress and is your body’s way of guarding against impact or pain.   But chronic stress can cause tension headaches or migraines as well as muscle atrophy. Wait.. muscle atrophy?  Yes, overuse of one area of muscles can turn off other muscles that balance it… Aka atrophy.

Cardiovascular System

The increase in blood flow, heart rate, and ultimately blood pressure during a response to a short term stress can become a  long term problem.. People with chronic stress are more at risk for heart attack, hypertension, and stroke.

Endocrine System

When your body produces cortisol and epinephrine, (the fight or flight hormones) your liver also produces glucose to ensure your body has adequate energy to fight off the danger.   In the long term, this elevated blood glucose can contribute to or worsen Type 2 diabetes.

Male Reproductive System

Chronic stress can affect testosterone production, sperm production and maturation, and even cause erectile dysfunction or impotence.

Female Reproductive System

Chronic stress can cause irregular or absent periods, increased PMS or menopause symptoms, and most commonly will cause a loss of libido and sexual desire.   

The moral of the story is that the ripple effects of stress on your body’s physical systems can be significant.  But how does chronic stress impact the mind? Researchers now believe that chronic stress not only impact your mental state, but can also impact the structure of your brain.   In an article in Psychology Today, Christopher Bergland explores a new study that found that chronically elevated levels of cortisol can damage the structure of the brain by causing overproduction of certain cels.  [note]www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201402/chronic-stress-can-damage-brain-structure-and-connectivity[/note]

“The ‘stress hormone’ cortisol is believed to create a domino effect that hard-wires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes predisposed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight.”

Bergland continues,

“Chronic stress has the ability to flip a switch in stem cells that turns them into a type of cell that inhibits connections to the prefrontal cortex, which would improve learning and memory, but lays down durable scaffolding linked to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

At this point you should be convinced!  Chronic stress can do far more harm than adding a few wrinkles to your forehead.   In the final blog article on stress, we will investigate ways to manage stress and lower cortisol. We will also investigate how reducing chronic stress levels can boost your weight loss efforts.   If you can’t wait until next week, check out the podcast on meditation. Meditation and mindfulness is a great way to get started reducing stress!