*Many people are aware of the alarming number of folks who are suffering with a wide range of what are now considered common health problems. High blood pressure; acid reflux; diabetes; ulcers; arthritis; obesity; asthma; and many others make up the list.
It is a common belief that these are conditions expected at some point in life.
However, on closer examination, it seems that there is a mysterious culprit that is a factor in all of these problems: STRESS.
Stress isn’t just a state of mind — it can affect your entire body. Seventy-five to 90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses.
Stress can trigger the body’s response to perceived threat or danger, the Fight-or-Flight response. During this reaction, certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength. Originally named for its ability to enable us to physically fight or run away when faced with danger, it’s now activated in situations where neither response is appropriate, like in traffic or during a stressful day at work. When the perceived threat is gone, systems are designed to return to normal function via the relaxation response, but in our times of chronic stress, this often doesn’t happen enough, causing damage to the body.
Stress that continues without relief can lead to a condition called distress — a negative stress reaction. Distress can lead to physical symptoms including headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and problems sleeping. Research suggests that stress also can bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases.
To understand what stress does to us, imagine you lived tens of thousands of years ago, at a time when humans were threatened by hungry animals such as saber-toothed tigers and wolves. Our caveman ancestors had to be able to react instantly, either by fighting the beasts or running away.
So humans evolved the ability to respond to a stressful situation instantly, by preparing the body for “fight or flight.” Under sudden stress, you will get a burst of exceptional strength and endurance, as your body pumps out stress hormones:
- Your heart speeds up
- Blood flow to your brain and muscles increases up to 400 percent
- Your digestion stops (so it doesn’t use up energy that’s needed elsewhere)
- Your muscle tension increases
- You breathe faster, to bring more oxygen to your muscles
Sometimes we can still benefit from this “fight or flight” response – like the case of a mother whose child was pinned under a concrete slab during a tornado. Under stress, she found the strength to lift the huge slab with her bare hands, even though it later took three men to move it.
But much of the time in modern life, the “fight or flight” response won’t help. Yet those stress hormones still flood your system, preparing you for physical action. And if you are under stress frequently, it can harm your physical health.
Cortisol is an important hormone in the body, secreted by the adrenal glands and involved in the following functions and more:
- Proper glucose metabolism
- Regulation of blood pressure
- Insulin release for blood sugar maintenance
- Immune function
- Inflammatory response
Normally, it’s present in the body at higher levels in the morning, and at its lowest at night. Although stress isn’t the only reason that cortisol is secreted into the bloodstream, it has been termed “the stress hormone” because it’s also secreted in higher levels during the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, and is responsible for several stress-related changes in the body. Small increases of cortisol have some positive effects:
- A quick burst of energy for survival reasons
- Heightened memory functions
- A burst of increased immunity
- Lower sensitivity to pain
- Helps maintain homeostasis in the body
While cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress, it’s important that the body’s relaxation response to be activated so the body’s functions can return to normal. Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, the body’s stress response is activated so often that functioning often doesn’t have a chance to return to normal, producing chronic stress.
One side effect of increased cortisol in the body can be weight gain, especially in the abdominal area, which can bring more negative health consequences than fat stored in other areas of the body.
Excess cortisol can be stimulated by physical stress such as over-exercising, lack of sleep, dieting, and poor nutrition; mental stress such as a high stress work environment; and emotional stress such as a death of a family member or even just too many demands on your time.
Stress is a natural part of life but, it’s effects don’t have to be a natural part of your health.
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.
Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!
Glenn Ellis is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of “Which Doctor?” and is a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics. For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com.