Increasingly stress is getting a bad rep. And it should be. As more research is done and greater understanding of the interconnectedness of bodily systems develops, we’re beginning to realize how much of a role stress plays in human disease and illness.
Let’s look at a few examples:
Poor digestion – During time of acute stress, the body shifts to “fight or flight” and away from “rest and digest,” which then minimizes production of digestive enzymes and bile, which are fundamental for good digestion.
Chronic digestive problems – It is believed that chronic stress can actually negatively affect the makeup of the microbiome (gut bacteria), change transit time, and weaken the function of key valves in the intestines, any and all of which would cause digestive issues such as stool changes, gas, bloating, and possibly intolerance to certain foods.
Hormonal issues (including low libido, menstrual complaints, poor thyroid function, and more) – Stress disrupts the nueroendocrine cascade (Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrendal axis) through a process known as the pregnenolone steal (among others), which means the right hormones in the right amounts don’t get produced or moved to where they need to go and imbalances result.
Hair loss – Yup, stress can be implicated in that, too.
Cancer – We all have cancer cells in the body all the time, but in healthy, normal scenarios, those cells die and never become overgrown or actively causing a cancer. If those cells start to grow out of control, the immune system goes on high alert, and gets to work remedying it. However, when stress weakens the immune system (by essentially putting it on low-power mode), the immune system doesn’t have the resources to fight the multiplying cancer cells, and full blown cancer can develop.
Autoimmune conditions – The aforementioned changes in hormonal balance, the immune system, and gut bacteria (which are being investigated for an autoimmune connection), all seem to play a role in the development of autoimmune conditions. The changes in the immune system, including the production and regulation of inflammatory cytokines are believed to be one of the primary triggers of autoimmune disease. In fact, researches have suggested severe emotional or psychological stress is a key trigger in the onset of autoimmune conditions.
Heart Disease – Chronic stress is associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, and chest pain. Scientists speculate the link between stress and heart disease stems from the rise in blood pressure, the stress hormones (cortisol) racing through the system, and the changes that occur in the way blood clots, all of which make a heart attack more likely.
Metabolic syndrome – For some (many?) people, stress changes their behavior with food, causing them to eat more or prefer sweet, high calorie, or “convenience” foods. Repeatedly eating to excess or consuming empty calories has been shown to cause weight gain, lead to diabetes, and cause other problems related to metabolic syndrome. Phsyiological mechanisms link stress to metabolic syndrome through the activation of the nueroendocrine cascade, which inhibits the body’s ability to deal with insulin and leads to increased fat storage around the middle.
Cold / flu – Because of it’s effects on the immune system (the low power mode mentioned above), which makes the body less able to fight off cold and flu germs, stress can be blamed for those common illnesses, too.
Whether stress is the immediate trigger or a merely link in the development of disease and illness, it certainly seems to play a key role.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to eliminate stress from our lives. But we do have the power to reduce certain triggers, change how we react, and manage the stress that does enter our lives.
Helpful activities to manage stress include exercising, meditating, journaling, spending time in nature, long walks, getting plenty of sleep, taking much needed breaks and vacations, and sharing physical contact such as hugs.
Specific herbs, known as adaptogens, can also help mitigate the effects of stress on the body. Some to look for include rhodiola, schisandra, eleuthero, ashwagandha, and licorice. They often come in the form of tinctures, pills, or even herbal infusions (teas). (As a side note, we have a few of the better tasting ones in our wellness tea blend, BeBalanced.)
You have the chance to protect your own health (both short-term and long-term) by developing ways to manage stress.
So, tell us in the comments below, what have you found to be most effective at reducing and/or managing stress in your own life?