Stress is a part of our everyday lives. Oddly enough, some of it can be positive, driving you to perform better and achieve more. But for the most part, it gets a bad rap and deservedly so — stress-related conditions account for 75 to 90 percent of appointments to primary care doctors.
Hormones and Stress
Why? Because stress triggers a cascade of hormonal activity that can wreak havoc on your body. The process is often referred to as the fight-or-flight syndrome. When you perceive a threat – and this can be anything from missing a work deadline or bouncing a check to a cancer diagnosis or death of a loved one — information is sent to the hypothalamus. This section of the brain controls the autonomic nervous system, responsible for involuntary functions like breathing, blood circulating and blinking. The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic nervous system, which revs up your body, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms it down.
The hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands to release epinephrine – more commonly known as adrenaline — a hormone that increases your heart rate. Usually adrenaline is easy to recognize. Ever notice how your heart pounds when you’re nervous? That’s adrenaline. This is why chronic stress is a leading cause of heart palpitations.
Long-Term Physical Side-Effects of Stress
But that’s not the only problem. When the heart pumps faster, it raises your blood pressure, which can cause headaches. On a long-term basis it can lead to more serious health problems such as cardiovascular disease and kidney disease.
Adrenaline also raises your breathing rate. As a result, small airways in the lungs open wide to take in more oxygen to keep the brain alert. But this can also lead to hyperventilation and feeling breathless and lightheaded.
Next, stress activates the HPA axis – the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands. The HPA axis releases several additional hormones to maintain the perception of threat so that the brain continues responding to the stress. Some experts compare the HPA axis to a gas pedal, keeping the body revved up while it’s activated, causing the release of the hormone cortisol.
When you’re stressed, you need more energy to either handle or run from the situation – hence the terms fight or flight. Cortisol’s job is to inhibit insulin and release sugar and fat from storage sites throughout the body into your blood for use as energy. That’s why stress can impact the blood glucose levels in people with diabetes. The process also causes some resistance in blood flow, so chronic stress can elevate your blood pressure, damage arteries and raise the risk for cardiovascular disease.
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Stress & Weight Gain
Once the stress has subsided, the sympathetic nervous system slows down, and parasympathetic nervous systems jumps in, shutting off hormonal releases and calming the body. Cortisol takes a little longer than some of the other hormones to clear your system, stimulating your appetite. The purpose is help you replace the calories burned while you were fighting or fleeing. However, in most stressful situations you don’t actually fight or flee. Instead, you experience the stress and then consume additional calories — hence the connection between cortisol, stress and weight gain.
Other Effects of Stress on the Body
Studies suggest chronic stress also depresses the immune system, leaving you more susceptible to colds, virus and influenza. Stress is notorious for flaring up asthma, exacerbating skin conditions such as eczema and contributing to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. It’s a major cause of insomnia, which can lead to a host of other health problems.
Stress Management Techniques
Managing stress is different for everyone. Meditating, practicing yoga or going for a relaxing walk can be effective strategies. But finding the right stress management technique that works for you may require some help. Talk to your primary care doctor about your stress levels. They should be able to create a plan to help you manage and reduce your stress. Don’t have a primary care physician? Consider partnering with an MDVIP-affiliated physician. They have time to really work with you and develop a wellness plan that addresses issues like stress, weight management and chronic illnesses.