Why Chronic Stress Causes Great Harm to Your Health
Stress is something I’m all too familiar with. Me being just 20 years old you’d think, “What could she possibly have to stress over?”. But let me tell you, I can name many things. Whether they’re worth being stressed out over is the question you should be asking. A daily challenge of mine is sorting the things I should be worrying about from what I shouldn’t be worried about. Since stress was how I always knew how to deal with difficult situations and trauma, I learned how to live with it. And in reality, that’s the case for many people my age, as well as those younger and older than I.
When I’m chatting with friends or just people in general about their health concerns, the number one thing that comes up is either stress or anxiety. Though many struggle day-to-day, many don’t realize how deep their emotions truly go.
I see how stress manifests in my physical body, even though it’s something I experience mentally. I go through cycles of feeling really bad then really great then back to bad. And it takes so much out of me when I’m in a bad streak of it, which can last for months.
Continually experiencing stress and not knowing how to dial down, or literally having a body that doesn’t know how to shut that alert off, has left me feeling unable to focus, ungrounded, and just plain exhausted. Stress has affected my digestive function, blood pressure, and skin health, as well as my sleep. Overthinking and worry leaves more than just your mind burnt out! And it’s important to take a deeper look into why and how chronic stress can affect the rest of your body so intensely.
What happens to your body when you’re under stress?
Our bodies have two different states that branch off of our Autonomic (or involuntary) nervous system; parasympathetic (PNS) and sympathetic (SNS). Parasympathetic state is “Rest and Digest” mode. This is where healing takes place. It’s the calmer, more neutral, of the two. The sympathetic state is the “Fight or Flight” or stress response. It’s the adrenally active response, but also happens when you’re excited (for example). It’s not exactly as black and white as survival mode.
We need both. You slide the scale as needed, but don’t want to get stuck in one place. Either one when out of balance can cause disharmony in the body.
When you become stressed, your body goes into sympathetic dominance. Whether it’s just being worried about being out of control over a situation or finding yourself face-to-face with a bear, it’s all stress to the body (and different people have different versions of what might be serious to them). Your body begins to shelve certain functions in order to deliver your body what it needs to keep you alive in that moment.
The HPA Axis is activated. Your hypothalamus gland sends a hormone to the pituitary gland, which then sends a hormone to your adrenal cortex to start pushing out cortisol. Your blood pressure increases, your blood sugar increases, and blood begins to flow to your limbs. At a certain point, when cortisol reaches sufficient levels in the blood, it sends messages back to stop producing cortisol (otherwise there could be serious damage done to the body by high levels of cortisol). Then, after the stressor is dealt with, you calm down.
So why is Chronic Stress harmful to your health?
Mind and body are indefinitely connected. You may have noticed that when you become anxious, you start sweating, your palms become clammy, or your heart starts racing. These are all signs your body is saying it’s under some sort of stress, but deeper than this, long-term stress can affect even the most simple and vital functions. Your symptoms may even be so vague that you can’t tie them to a specific problem.
Nervous System/Endocrine Dysfunction. Quite obviously, the nervous system has a direct role in your stress response. Overactivation of the HPA Axis can lead to adrenal fatigue and eventually adrenal exhaustion.
When a stressful situation is over, your body returns to parasympathetic mode. However, the longer and more frequently you’re in sympathetic dominant mode, the harder it will be to come back down from a sympathetic state. More and more cortisol is being made. Eventually, your body tries to protect itself by no longer responding to signals that cortisol needs to be made due to the dangerous outcomes of having too much in your bloodstream. This can result in too low cortisol levels, which manifests as fatigue, mood changes, poor memory, difficultly sleeping, and bone and muscle loss. Constantly stressing the body contributes to depleting your overall reservoir of vitality.
Heart and Blood Issues. The cardiovascular system is one that is greatly affected by stress. Blood pressure (BP) increases as part of the stress response to help carry more oxygen and glucose to the parts of your body that need it faster. Your heart begins to beat faster and harder, and blood vessels dilate. Being in the stress response longer with elevated blood pressure can turn into hypertension. Stress can also affect the breaking down of sugar in the blood. If levels of blood sugar are too high, it may result in hyperglycemia or Type II Diabetes.
Fluid Production. The parasympathetic mode is when your body is readily secreting fluids, which means that when you’re in sympathetic mode, your body isn’t concerned with that. There’s less blood flow to areas like your skin or hair, resulting in dryness all around. Dry mouth, dandruff, and vaginal dryness can all be signs of stress.
Digestive Issues. Digestion is a background function of the body, and it happens in parasympathetic mode. This means you need to be calm and grounded to properly digest a meal. When you’re in sympathetic dominance, your body isn’t concerned with digestion, which could be the reason you’re not hungry when you’re stressed. And if you’re someone who stress eats, it could be an overload on your stomach at the moment.
It’s important to remember that when you’re stressed, your stomach isn’t producing the enzymes it needs to break down the food in your stomach (low HCL), which can be an initial problem in poor digestion. Not being able to properly digest food, or even just holding emotions in, can lead to bloating, gas, pain, or constipation.
Your gut listens. Stress directly affects your gut health and has been linked to poor absorption, intestinal permeability, and inflammation. “The heightened inflammation that frequently accompanies stress and depression triggers blooms of pathogenic bacteria that encourage dysbiosis and a leaky gut”(Madison and Kiecolt-Glaser, 2019). This can lead to bigger problems like Leaky Gut or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). In fact, stress triggers IBS!
Brain Function. Being stressed can make it very difficult to stay in a balanced headspace. You may find yourself to be angrier and more irritable, almost out of control of your emotions. You’re more likely to snap over little things because you’re already on edge. Stress can also make it harder to remember things and for your brain to perform properly. Your judgment, decision-making, and memory are all thrown off.
Pain Sensitivity. Stress can make you more reactive to pain and even more sensitive. It makes you just as physically tense as you are mentally. Because your body is on guard, bracing for impact or injury, your muscles tense up. You’re likely to have tight shoulder and/or neck muscles. You may even experience chronic migraines.
Sleep Quality. It’s so important to get good sleep. It’s a time where your mind gets a rest, and your body can do necessary detoxification. Deep sleep lets your body know to stop producing stress hormones. When sleep is disrupted or of poor quality, your body is not able to properly do these things. Not getting enough sleep triggers your body to send out more stress hormones. The more stress hormones going out leads to, once again, poor sleep, waking up throughout the night, and getting less sleep. You wake up feeling tired and groggy. It’s an endless cycle.
Hormones and Reproductive Function. If the way the hypothalamus and pituitary gland are responding changes, this can affect your hormones. Stress on the endocrine system can disrupt its function, and hormones released by the hypothalamus can directly affect the female reproductive system. “Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) inhibits hypothalamic gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) secretion, and glucocorticoids inhibit pituitary luteinizing hormone and ovarian estrogen and progesterone secretion”, which can result in amenorrhea (or missing periods) (Kalantaridou SN; Makrigiannakis A; Zoumakis E; Chrousos, 2004). The length of menstrual cycles can change, and it can also be harder to conceive when you’re stressed. Thyroid dysfunctions are also known to be affected by stress.
Immune Health. When we’re stressed, our body is not able to fight off toxins and intruders as effectively. Stress hormones suppress immune function making our body more susceptible to infection.
Taking care of your mind is taking care of your body. Making sure you come down from any stress you experience benefits and protects you in the long term. Even just finding time to journal or talk to someone about what you’re feeling can help.
Most of everyone nowadays is experiencing it in some form, and many are looking for a solution. Pharmaceutical companies are still making big bucks off anti-anxiety meds, and at the same time, adaptogenic herbs have become increasingly popular in mainstream culture. Headlines of magazines read, “How to Manage Your Stress”. Wellness catalogs rave about the new ways to deal with stress and anxiety. We don’t have to talk about why we’re all stressed out in the mainstream media because we all know why. And what isn’t being talked about is how we can change society and our culture to lower stress levels across the board.
So with that, I leave you with a few questions to ask yourself:
Why is being stressed out normal, and why is it something we should have to live with? Why is not being stressed out in some way, shape, or form shocking to hear now?
Stay tuned for tips on how to make stress a lesser part of your life later this week.