Stress. Unfortunately, everyone has it in one form or another. Chronic stress can affect your overall health and well-being. In order to show you what stress does to your body, let’s take a look inside. Your nervous system has two important parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is responsible for action. It’s your "accelerator". When this system is activated, your body experiences increases in alertness, energy, euphoria, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle tone.
The SNS is responsible for “fight or flight”. It’s the stress response. Stress is an automatic response to any stimulus. We were meant to have this as a survival mechanism. When faced with danger, this response kicks in to help defend ourselves or run away. It was essential for our ancient ancestors to protect themselves from predators and other threats. In today’s world, it helps us against dangers such as stranger attacks, fire, avoiding car accidents, etc.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is responsible for the resting state. If the SNS is your accelerator, then the PNS is your "break". When this system is activated, your body experiences decreased alertness, a feeling of calmness and relaxation, your heart rate and breathing rate decrease, your muscles relax and there is an increase in digestive activity.
The PNS is responsible for “rest and digest”. It’s the relaxation response. After you eat, the PNS mechanism shunts blood flow towards your digestive system to effectively break down food and absorb nutrients.
The ideal situation is a balance between these two systems, the stress and relaxation responses, in order for you and your body to achieve homeostasis.
Unfortunately, in this day and age, we are confronted with multiple challenges or stressors on a daily basis. We meet deadlines. Pay bills. Take care of children or elderly parents. Even a ring or text on a cell phone will trigger our sympathetic nervous system. Along with external stressors, there are internal stressors. These include pain, illness, excessive exercise, negative emotions/thoughts, medications, and toxins. All these things will activate your stress response. Our "fight or flight" response is normally triggered in extreme danger. Now imagine if this response is triggered constantly on a daily basis, multiple times during the day.
How Stress Affects Your Health
When your "fight or flight" response is constantly and chronically activated, a number of hormonal and biochemical changes can occur.
If you are under a lot of stress (externally or internally), your body makes cortisol which is your main stress hormone. As a result, all of your body's reserves are shunted towards the cortisol pathway and the production of all of your other essential hormones can be affected.
This can be demonstrated by looking at the Response of the Neurohormonal System to Stress (see figure). The production of all of your hormones begins in the brain in a small area called the hypothalamus. It sends signals to the pituitary gland, your master gland of all hormones. If your body is under constant stress, the pituitary gland sends signals to your adrenal glands to make cortisol and adrenaline in order to help your body deal with the stressors. However, this in turn can cause a reduction in levels of all of your other essential hormones which include:
The resulting imbalance in hormones can contribute to symptoms such as low energy and fatigue, weight gain, headaches, difficulty sleeping, mood changes, poor memory, menstrual irregularities, infertility and more.
If your "fight or flight" response is constantly activated, the your "rest and digest" response is suppressed. This can impair your digestion causing various digestive problems (such as heartburn, reflux, constipation, irritable bowel symptoms) and affecting your normal gut flora that helps with absorption of essential nutrients.
When your body is under constant stress, your immune system becomes suppressed. Inflammation is your body's response to a threat such as a bacteria or virus. However, any physical or emotional stressor, small or big, is considered a threat and can result in chronic, low-level inflammation. This can predispose you to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, immune dysfunction and increased risk of cancer.
Therefore, chronic stress can be a major root cause of symptoms and disease.
How to Manage the Effects of Stress on Your Health: An Integrative and Restorative Approach
Now that we know how stress affects your body and your health, let’s talk about how we can manage this.
One of the core beliefs of my integrative practice is that the body can and will heal itself if function is optimized in 5 areas - hormones, nutrition, toxin clearance, mind and body (Integrative Five-Point Restorative Approach). An imbalance in one or more of these areas can contribute to your individual symptoms and conditions. In the case of stress, think of your body as a car. Your mind/body is your engine; hormones and nutrients are your fuel and oil. If your engine is constantly revved up, your fuel and oil tanks will eventually become depleted. Chronic stress throws the whole system out of balance and that's how each person has their own particular set of symptoms and issues.
One of the ways to manage stress is to balance the mind/body connection and activate your body's relaxation response. Some recommendations that I give to patients include:
In addition to balancing the mind/body connection, it’s important to address the 3 other areas - hormones, nutrients, toxin clearance.
It’s important to know your hormone and nutrient levels and optimize them as much as possible. A combination of natural hormone balancing, supplements, and dietary changes may be needed. Doing this will help fill up your fuel and oil tanks to help your body become more resilient to stress. It will help preserve your reserve. You may not be able to modify or eliminate all of your external stressors, but at least you can address these areas internally so your body is equipped to handle whatever comes its way.
Finally, toxins can act as another stressor on your body. Toxins can include harmful substances in our air, food, water, soil, and household products. Medications can also act as toxins. Identifying and eliminating toxins and supporting your detoxification system is important for your overall health in general.
In summary, when you balance the mind/body connection, optimize hormones and nutrients, and eliminate toxins you can mitigate the effects of stress on your health and achieve optimal health and wellness from the inside out.