How Stress Impacts Our Health

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How Stress Impacts Our Health

It’s a relatively well-known fact that chronic stress is detrimental to your health, but can we pinpoint just why that is? Do we know on a physiological level what’s happening to our bodies when we are in a state of stress and how this could be detrimental to our health?

Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (your fight or flight response) and is a vital and deeply programmed response to immediate real or perceived danger. Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is released, prompting the adrenals to release cortisol & epinephrine (i.e. adrenaline) into the blood stream. This causes a range of physiological responses such as:

  • Shunting blood to the heart, brain and skeletal muscle in order to think and act on escaping from the ‘threat’
  • The surface area of our lungs expands allowing for more oxygen, which increases mental alertness
  • All senses are sharper and sensitive to the surrounding environment
  • The liver increases its capacity to convert stored glycogen to glucose to provide additional energy to flee

Whilst these biological processes are required and effective short-term strategies, the body cannot distinguish between mild, moderate and severe ‘threat’. The same stress response is triggered whether you are running late for a meeting or almost hit by a car cycling to work! Our Darwinian programming hasn’t evolved quickly enough to respond adequately to modern day stressors, making daily stress management especially important.

As stress sends a cocktail of stress hormones throughout the body triggering the above functions, if continued chronically it can start to have the below physiological consequences:

  • Weight gain, as the liver is in a constant state of producing glucose which is released into the blood stream switching off lipolysis (fat-burning). Sugar remaining in the blood stream can lead to conditions such as type 2 diabetes, kidney disease and studies have shown a link to degenerative cognitive conditions.
  • Sleep disturbances – Hormones compete for receptors within the body. As chronic stress ensures that adrenaline is in constant supply, melatonin (a hormone required for sleep) can’t be accessed and utilised effectively.
  • Increase cardiovascular risk – High blood pressure, stroke & heart disease can all be impacted by long-term stress.
  • Impact Appearance – Stress can reduce the body’s ability to properly absorb, digest and assimilate vitamins and minerals we ingest. This can lead to poor hair, skin, teeth due to inadequate micronutrient status.
  • Recent studies have shown a link between infertility in both men and women and an increase daily stress as part of modern living. The over-production of cortisol and adrenaline leads to low production of essential sex hormones.
  • Increases risk of poor mental health – Stress hormones affect parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning and reward. If affected long-term this can have a detrimental effect on emotional health.
  • Weakens our immune system, as we can’t readily access the mechanisms required to fight off foreign invaders.

Therefore, the question remains, what can we do to help increase our resilience to stress in order to lower our risk of disease? Read on…

Eat Regularly

Skipping meals signals the adrenal glands to pump out hormones to create excess energy to ‘hunt and scavenge’ in times of scarcity. By ensuring you eat three times a day (and prioritise this particularly in times of stress) will help support your adrenals.

Get 7-9 Hours of Good Quality Sleep

Blue light from mobile devices and laptops decreases melatonin which we’ve previously mentioned is the hormone responsible for sleep. A consistent bedtime routine can calm you into a relaxed and sleepy state ready for a good night’s sleep. Turn off devices an hour before bed, read or listen to calming music, perhaps meditate or try a little light 10-minute yoga session.

Reduce Stimulants & Toxins

Stimulants and toxins place a load on the liver, affecting sleep which we know affects stress. Stimulants such as caffeine spike cortisol to be released into the blood which sends our energy levels spiking and inevitably crashing. The phrase ‘tired but wired’ comes to mind! Consider reducing or eliminating caffeine, alcohol, and chemical exposure again, particularly in times of considerable stress.

Increase Mindful Practices

Taking a walk and exploring nature is a great way to introduce mindfulness to your day. Yoga, meditation, breathing exercises are also excellent tools you can use daily to help bring your awareness to the present and manage those stress levels. The more you adopt mindful practices within your day, the more your brain creates new neural pathways to cope with stress.

Mindful practices also extends to eating your meals in a mindful & considered way. Eating in a stressful state such as on-the-go will result in your body ineffectively digesting and absorbing nutrients from your food.

Connect with Loved Ones

Several studies have shown that your relationships and sense of community belonging correlate with rates of mental wellbeing. In these times, isolation is more prevalent than ever. Reaching out to an old friend or staying in regular touch with loved ones can brighten yours (and their) day and bring a sense of calm connectedness, lowering stress levels.

If you have any more stress-reducing tips I’d love to hear them below!

If you’d like to get in touch to enquire whether working with a nutritionist is right for you, please do get in touch for a no obligation chat and to discover more about the consultation process and how it is tailored to your unique requirements.

 

References:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response#:~:text=If%20the%20brain%20continues%20to%20perceive%20something%20as,the%20adrenal%20glands%2C%20prompting%20them%20to%20release%20cortisol.

Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (nih.gov)

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29671684/

https://www.sleep.org/design-perfect-bedtime-routine/

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-relationships-and-community

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