Ask A Practitioner: How Does Chronic Stress Affect Health?

Join every week for a Q&A session with one of Basmati’s practitioners, Melissa Hill (FDN-P)! We know that there is a lot of confusing information out there, which can make applying health advice overwhelming.  Sometimes, it’s best to ask a practitioner directly, so each week we’ll cover a common health question!

Do you have a health question you’d like to ask? Write to us at editors [at] basmati [dot] com () and your question could be chosen and featured in a future column!

Q. What does stress have to do with health? How can stress affect my health and weight?

Most people are not aware of the far-reaching implications of chronic stress on their health and do not include regular forms of stress management in their daily lives. 

Chronic stress is at the root of most all chronic health complaints. When you face stress, whether real or perceived, the body releases stress hormones, such as cortisol, that prepare your body to either fight or flee the stressful event. This release of stress hormones also signals physiological changes in the body. The heart rate accelerates and breathing increases. Extra glucose is released by the liver as fuel for the muscles to prepare you to fight or run away.  Function of your digestive and reproductive systems slows down to conserve energy. These are all very useful things when faced with an immediate stressor as these physiological changes allow you to quickly escape or fight if needed. 

When you are in a chronic stress state however, these physiological responses that are useful for short-term situations can malfunction and cause unpleasant symptoms to occur.

In today’s society, however, our bodies have gotten the impression that we are under immediate stress all the time, with our nervous system kicked in to sympathetic overdrive most all the time from constant stress and stimulation. This comes from daily worries like emails, traffic, work, economic worries, managing the family, and rushing from place to place, and also from big life stressors like the death of a loved one, divorce, financial troubles, job loss, long periods with too many obligations, chronic pain, being in a toxic relationship, and unrest in the world. All of these things contribute to the tension, stress, and anxiety that we all face on a daily basis. By repeating these circumstances hour after hour and day after day, stress accumulates in our body, impairing many of the vital functions that are essential for good health.

The biggest problem with chronic stress, however, is that people become so accustomed to it. Stress is such a normal part of life that we no longer recognize that it is there, and consequently we don’t do anything to deal with it and keep it from accumulating and creating disease.

Stress is the number one contributor to chronic illness and disease. If it is going unchecked in your life, it will begin to manifest itself in the form of symptoms.

How Stress Affects The Body

Digestion: When you are scared, nervous, or upset, it is common to feel knots in your stomach, feel nauseated, or have an upset stomach. So, too, when you are dealing with long term stress, digestion can become impaired and digestive processes slowed down. The release of stress hormones signals the body to divert energy away from digestion and prioritize being ready to fight or flee from the perceived threat. When cortisol levels are high, the functioning of the digestive system gets reduced. Production of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes are reduced which can lead to GERD, ulcers, incomplete digestion, and malabsorption of food. The consequences of poor digestion will also spill over, potentially affecting the health and efficiency of every other system in the body.

Anxiety and Mood: Stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine are stimulants to the body and when they remain at high levels can produce anxiety. High levels of cortisol and epinephrine also reduces and impairs production of important neurotransmitters like serotonin. Serotonin is a natural antidepressant and ‘feel good’ brain messenger; low levels of serotonin are connected to increased depression and mood disturbances.

Immune System: Your immune system may not be functioning as well as it could because of stress. When you first face a source of stress, the body strengthens the immune system so that you are protected against wounds and infection that could result from facing danger. But over time, the body develops a resistance to cortisol and does not respond to it properly. Instead, it ramps up production of substances that actually promote inflammation, leading to a state of chronic inflammation. These pro-inflammatory substances, called cytokines, are associated with a host of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, diabetes, and heart disease.  Your immune system in its weakened state cannot provide good protection against viruses and bacteria, setting you up to more easily catch colds and flus.

Weight: When you are stressed and cortisol is released, appetite is increased as the body’s way of attempting to gather a reserve of fuel to help you respond to the stress—you need plenty of energy from glucose to run away from a bear, after all! Your body stores this energy reserve as fat. People often crave processed carbohydrates and fatty foods when stress is high.  Moreover, the weight from stress tends to accumulate around the belly where cortisol receptors are found in higher amounts.

Sleep: While insomnia can have other causes, stress is one of the major contributors to sleep problems. Feeling tired but wired and can’t sleep as well as feeling unable to fall asleep because your mind is racing are both common effects of too much stress. And we know when you’re not getting proper sleep, you don’t get the healing and recovery time you need for optimal metabolism and health.

Chronic Pain: It is not uncommon for pain to occur when you are dealing with chronic stress. Why does this happen? Well, stress causes muscle tension throughout the body that can manifest as headaches, backaches, and pain in other areas. Stress also has a direct impact on the nervous system and can overstimulate the nerves, leading to nerve pain. When the adrenals become fatigued from prolonged periods of stress, the body releases more of the hormone prolactin, which can increase sensitivity to pain, making it worse.

If it sounds like stress is contributing to your health issues, then acknowledging and identifying your daily and chronic stressors is the first step. Once you are aware stress is affecting you, you can take daily actions to manage it better and alleviate it before it accumulates and aggravates your body. Daily meditation, breathing practices, Tai Chi, yoga, acupressure, massage, exercise, and community support can all be helpful activities and techniques! Find what works for you.