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How Chronic Stress Can Affect Physical Health

By now, most people are aware of the toll stress can take on their mental health.  The links to depression and anxiety are uncanny.  The emotional exhaustion is felt.  The angst it causes is real.    

The effect chronic stress has on physical health is just as prominent, but maybe not as recognized.  An estimated 70%-80% of diseases are associated with stress.  It can aggravate the body causing inflammation, elevated glucose levels, and disruptions to entire systems, including the metabolic, digestive, and reproductive systems. 

Acute stress – temporary bouts of stress – is normal and keeps us alert and out of danger. These short-term bouts of stress are something our bodies can deal with.  However, the chronic type of stress is something else.  Our bodies are not used to the long-term exposure to stressful situations, and it is this extended exposure to stress that can wreck habit to the body. 

Stress ignites the sympathetic nervous system, activating the good ole’ fight-or-flight response. This response raises the amount of glucose (the source of energy) in the body so that we can fight the danger or flee from it.  All is well when this happens intermittently, but when it is nonstop: the morning commute, the back-to-back meetings, bills everywhere, toxic environments; it can take a toll on the body.  That is what leads the body to a diseased state.

So how exactly can stress hinder physical health:

It can increase weight gain

Cortisol, aka the stress hormone, can lead to weight gain.  Studies have shown a correlation between obesity and high cortisol levels. Why?  Cortisol promotes abdominal fat.  Remember that fight-or-flight?  Well, fight-or-flight is all about survival and if you are trying to survive, cortisol will make sure to protect vital organs by surrounding them with fat so puncture wounds do not hit any organs and therefore, increasing chances of survival.  Useful tool – when being chased by a predator; not so useful when stressing about traffic.  Yet, our bodies cannot distinguish the different scenarios, so abdominal storage it is. And if you are wondering why some people have such a hard time getting rid of belly fat, it comes back to this biological response to stress. The body is simply trying to survive.

Raises blood sugar

As mentioned above, stress ignites the fight-or-flight response, which in turn sends glucose (blood sugar) throughout our body to be used as energy.  This surge in glucose gives the body a better chance of surviving.  That extra energy gives us the strength to knock out that saber-tooth tiger and propel our bodies to run from danger.  Once again, this is not a huge deal when it happens infrequently, however when it occurs on a regular basis those surges of glucose steadily enter the blood stream and stay there if it is not used up as energy, raising blood sugar. 

It is linked to hormonal and reproductive issues

The stress response causes all non-essential systems to shut down momentarily.  If a mountain lion is on your heels you need to survive that experience in order to reproduce, so step one is to get out of danger.  It is essentially useless for your body to prep itself to reproduce if you will not be alive for the next few minutes, so instead all energy is focused on getting out of danger.  When this occurs at a chronic level it forces the body to stay in this stage of essential-only activity. 

Can increase the risk of autoimmune issues

Stress can affect the hormones responsible for reducing inflammation and suppressing the immune system.  In turn, these hormones can change the function of leukocytes (a type of blood cell that fights infection and other foreign intruders) causing an elevated risk for autoimmune disorders.  For those with autoimmune disorders, stress can also aggravate flare ups to reoccur (and those flareups can cause more stress, leading to an endless cycle).

Can cause digestive issues

Ever feel a knot in your stomach when you are stressed about something?  Lose your appetite momentarily?  That’s the hormones doing their thing.   When the stress response is ignited, the body goes into full survival mode.  It is about making it through the next few minutes, not the next few days.  The digestive system temporarily shuts down because 1) it is not needed at the very moment; and 2) the body needs to focus on other parts of the body.  Not a big deal when it is acute stress, like waiting to speak in front of a crowd, or slamming your brakes to avoid an accident.  Chronic stress on the other hand means your digestive problems will chronically be going through this response.  Long-term issues will continue.  You can go days with an upset stomach or irregular bowel movements because you are constantly thinking about bills to be paid or looming deadlines.  This can ignite other health issues (for example if you are not eating properly, you can start to see signs of malnourishment; or if you are vomiting or having bouts of diarrhea it can lead to dehydration) and cause disruption to your everyday routine.

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