Stress! Our world is riddled with it. Many of us face it head on nearly everyday. Job stress, commute stress, financial stress, job loss, the stress of raising children, intimate partner stress, divorce, stress of caring for (or worrying about) a sick or aging partner or family member and even social isolation and loneliness are considered stressful to the brain and the body. The list is infinite.
While some of life’s events are inevitable and we have very little control over it, other events or circumstances may not be as bad as we imagine. These might be phobias or simply an overreaction to something that hasn’t even occurred and likely may never occur. Yet our brain still perceives it as a potentially harmful threat to the body. The brain does not know the difference.
Subsequently, the body – that receives communication from the brain – does not know the difference either. Our bodies are naturally designed to survive acute and immediate stress. That’s one of the amazing miracles of the human body – it’s adapts quickly to protect you. Chronic stress – that’s a whole different scenario.
Here’s what happens when our brain senses fear or a threat of some kind.
That fear triggers the Amygdala, an area of the brain involved in emotional processing, to communicate with the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus, the major command center in the brain, then communicates with the Pituitary Gland in close proximity. The Pituitary Gland, the “master gland” that transmits precursor hormones to many hormones glands throughout the body communicates with the Adrenal Glands that sit on top of our kidneys. This is commonly known as the HPA Axis – the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis.
The sympathetic nervous system (think gas pedal to increase speed) has now been activated to prepare for a “Fight or Flight” response. The adrenal glands are signaled to produce Epinephrine (a.k.a Adrenaline) and Norepinephrine (a.k.a Noradrenaline) to help us get to “safety” as quickly as possible – whatever that might be. Respiratory airways open up, blood flow circulation increases to our muscles, heart rate increases, digestion slows, increased oxygen flows to the brain to increase alertness and focus, pupils in the eyes dilate to better see where we are going and blood is shunted away from non-critical organs. Our most important organs are treated with higher priority, while other organs like our skin, ovaries, testicles and thyroid gland are put on the secondary “back burner.” It’s a protective process designed to occur for a short duration.
Cortisol, a stress triggered steroid hormone, is also secreted from the adrenal glands to release stored glucose to provide a quick source of fuel for the “fight or flight” ahead. Additionally, it controls fluid and mineral balance and blood pressure through it’s effects on the kidneys. In a non-threatening environment, cortisol is positively essential for nourishment, growth, reproduction, survival, longevity and more.
If the stress is limited and the source of fear has resolved, the brain tells the body to resume to the more peaceful, relaxed parasympathetic nervous system (think brakes to slow down). In other words, Rest, Digest, Repair and Reproduce.
Chronic stress, that persists for weeks, months and even years is extremely detrimental to the body. Cortisol is released in overabundance – well beyond what the body needs and can tolerate. The body was certainly not designed to withstand the overwhelming exposure of stress hormones. Chronic stress is catabolic (breaking down or destructive) and leads to deterioration of the body’s organs, adverse changes in normal physiologic functioning and early death.
Listed below are some of the more common physiological responses to chronic stress:
Trouble falling or staying asleep
Gastro-Intestinal pain and ulcers
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Malabsorption & Nutrient Deficiency
Intestinal Permeability (“Leaky Gut Syndrome”)
High Blood Pressure
Irritability and Impatience
Anxiety and/or Depression
Muscle Aches & Fibromyalgia
Carbohydrate & Sugar Cravings
Insulin Resistance (elevated glucose and insulin)
Premature Skin Aging
Eczema, Psoriasis & Acne Flare ups
Immune Suppression and/or Autoimmune Disorders
Getting Sick Frequently and/or Staying Sick (i.e. cold virus)
Increased Cell Dysfunction & Cell Changes (i.e. Cancer)