We are all feeling more stress than usual. Financial worries, health concerns, family obligations, and changing work expectations can all be sources of stress in our lives. Stress can also be physical. Infection, injury, and intense physical exertion are stressors. We can experience stress as a single event or it can become chronic.
What happens within our bodies when we experience stress?
The initial reaction to a stressful event begins in the brain via the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS functions without conscious effort. It regulates our bodily processes via two main divisions: sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). Regardless of whether the stress we feel is life-threatening or not, the ANS reacts the same way.
The brain immediately tells the adrenal glands to produce epinephrine (also called adrenaline). In response to epinephrine, the heart beats faster, breathing becomes more rapid, and blood pressure increases to allow more blood flow to muscles and vital organs. Epinephrine also mobilizes blood sugar and stored fats to quickly provide energy to our bodies.
As stress continues, the brain triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol. This keeps the body on high alert, primed, and ready to react quickly. As the threat disappears, the parasympathetic division kicks in, allowing cortisol levels to decrease and calming the stress response.
Unfortunately, our body doesn’t know the difference between being attacked by a tiger or sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic while commuting. Our brains only know that these events feel like threats.
Day-to-day, low level, chronic stressors lead to the same activation of the sympathetic nervous system; however, with chronic stress the parasympathetic “brake” is less likely to activate because the body feels constantly threatened.
Over time, high levels of epinephrine and cortisol can begin to have negative effects on our bodies. Blood vessels can become damaged, leading to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular concerns. Cortisol increases appetite and helps the body store extra energy as fat, resulting in unwanted weight gain.
Although these effects of chronic stress are some of the most well-known, stress also affects our bodies in other ways.
- Stress and Sleep
Increased cortisol from chronic stress can lead to impaired sleep. Likewise, poor sleep is a source of chronic stress that can cause increased cortisol.1 This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle over time, where cortisol from stress decreases sleep and decreased sleep creates more stress on the body, leading to additional cortisol release and further impaired sleep.
- Stress and Hormones
Along with increases in cortisol, stress can lead to imbalances of other hormones as well.
Thyroid function in general is decreased with stress, which leads to feelings of fatigue and other symptoms. Sex hormones (DHEA,2 estrogen, testosterone) are also affected by stress.
Both cortisol and sex hormones are created via the same pathway, until the point they split into separate pathways based on which hormone is being produced.
During chronic stress, the cortisol pathway is preferred and can increase demand for hormonal building blocks to meet the body’s demand for cortisol production, which decreases the availability of these same building blocks for sex hormone production.
- Stress and Immune Health
Short-term stress and chronic stress affect the immune system differently.
Think of short-term stressors (minutes to hours) like cutting your finger while chopping vegetables. Your body immediately responds to these events by activating immune cells to aid in healing and prevent infection.
On the other hand, chronic stress can actually inhibit the immune response, leading to increased susceptibility to infection over time.
Inflammation is another function of the immune system that can be affected by stress. Both short-term and chronic stress can lead to an increase in inflammation.3
In some cases, inflammation is a good thing. For example, when you sprain your ankle, it might swell and hurt. This response is due to inflammatory cells rushing to the injury site, where they serve to help heal and to protect from further injury.
Chronic inflammation due to prolonged stress, on the other hand, leads to tissue breakdown rather than repair. Many of the health conditions associated with chronic stress, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, are caused or worsened by the effects of chronic inflammation.
- Stress and Digestion
As the body responds to stress – sending blood flow and oxygen to the muscles, heart, lungs, and brain – blood flow to other organ systems, such as the digestive tract, slows. This results in a slowing down or temporary disruption of digestion that can cause cramping, inflammation in the digestive tract, and an imbalance in gut bacteria.
Chronic stress can result in a decrease in healthy gut bacteria, such as the Lactobacillus4 and Bifidobacterium species, while leading to an increase in problematic bacteria like E. coli and Klebsiella.5
The gut and the brain are intricately connected, and while stress can change gut function and gut bacteria, these changes can, in turn, affect our brains. Much like the relationship between sleep and stress, digestion and stress also affect one another.
- Stress and Pain
Prolonged stress can reduce our pain threshold,6,7 as well as decrease our sensitivity to pain medications. In this way chronic stress can lead to a worsening of pain, particularly in individuals with conditions such as fibromyalgia, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and other types of chronic pain.6
And like the vicious cycle created by other effects of stress, pain can become a source of chronic stress that leads to more pain.
Although it might not be possible to remove all stress from your life, there are things you can do to support your body in managing stress.
- Acknowledge the Good
Gratitude is the simple practice of acknowledging the good in your life. It can be giving thanks to yourself, to others, or to a higher power. Taking a few minutes to say thanks and to acknowledge the good can lift your spirits, increase your feelings of happiness, and strengthen your sense of well-being.
- Move Your Body
Whatever you call it – play, exercise, movement, or recreation – moving your body decreases feelings of stress and increases feelings of well-being. Choose any type of movement you enjoy and keep it up for 20-30 minutes to obtain the best benefit.
- Breathe Deeply
Taking slow, deep breaths into the abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve, a long nerve that connects the brain to many organs and helps your body apply a “brake” to your stress response. Focus on taking a deep breath into the abdomen (your belly should move outward) for a few seconds. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly release your breath over a few seconds.
- Focus on Fresh
As stress turns up your appetite, it often leads to craving convenience foods high in simple carbohydrates and unhealthy fats. Fresh foods (vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds) are rich in nutrients that support your body, especially during times of stress. A good rule of thumb is to shop the outer edges of the grocery store first, purchasing mainly fresh foods. And don’t forget safety when it comes to storing your food purchases.
While staying at home and washing your hands regularly are the best things to do right now, that doesn’t mean you can relax your guard on your health. It’s more urgent now than ever to keep your immune system up! Certainly, getting enough exercise and the right vitamins and minerals are essential.
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- Hirotsu C, Tufik S, Andersen M. Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: from physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep Sci2015;8(3):143-152.
- Lennartsson A, Theorell T, Rockwood A, et al. Perceived stress at work is associated with lower levels of DHEA-S. PLoS One2013;8(8):e72460.
- Dhabhar F. Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful.Immunol Res 2014;58(2-3):193-210.
- Karl J, Hatch A, Arcidiacono S, et al. Effects of psychological, environmental, and physical stressors on the gut microbiota. Front Microbiol2018;9:2013. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2018.02013.
- Nishida K, Sawada D, Kuwano Y, et al. Health benefits of Lactobacillus gasseriCP2305 tablets in young adults exposed to chronic stress: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Nutrients 2019;11(8):1859.
- Ahmad A, Zakaria R. Pain in times of stress. Malays J Med Sci2015;22(Spec Issue):52-61.
- Wippert P, Wiebking C. Stress and alterations in the pain matrix: a biopsychosocial perspective on back pain and its prevention and treatment. Int J Environ Res Public Health2018;15(4):785. doi: 10.3390/ijerph15040785.