This is the second post in a series. Start with the first post.
In the last post, I wrote that stress can have a big impact on your physical and mental health. Why is it that we all seem to know this, yet we usually don’t take it seriously? We seem to accept that stress is a part of modern life, and that we just have to suck it up and live with it.
This post describes what stress does to your body, brain, hormones and nervous system.
Fight or flight: the sympathetic response
During the fight or flight response, your brain perceives stress, and then activates your sympathetic nervous system in these ways:
• Blood flow goes to your muscles, and away from your extremities and organs. Explains cold hands and feet, indigestion, and poor circulation to your reproductive organs for fertility.
• Heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and fat all rise. Explains anxiety, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar.
• Blood clotting speeds up to prevent blood loss. May contribute to clotting and blood disorders.
• Muscles contract for extra speed and strength. Explains chronic muscle tension and pain.
The fight or flight response, and your recovery from it, is a natural part of your biology. Truth be told, you need this response to run from a tiger or lift a car off an accident victim. However, your body is meant to recover from the fight or flight response, not stay there.
When fight or flight become chronic
Hans Seyles, well known stress researcher, exposed lab rats to a variety of chronic physical stressors such as bright lights, loud sounds, and temperature changes. Consequently, Seyles observed three response stages to these chronic stressors:
- Alarm: Stress activates the fight or flight response, and norepinephrine is released.
- Adaptation: Stressors are prolonged, and the adrenal hormone cortisol rises.
- Exhaustion: Stress continues to the point when disease (and death) occurs.
Selye’s proof that prolonged stress can produce disease is now widely accepted.
Allostatic load, when stress is just too much
Allostasis is your recovery process, it means maintaining stability through change. It is your ability to adapt and cope in the short term.
When your “allostatic load” reaches a tipping point, you are not able to maintain stability. It is the price your body pays for being forced to adapt to too much stress.
From an evolutionary point of view, we are able to handle temporary stress, and then recover. We may fight or we may flee. Either way, we can maintain our allostasis, our ability to adapt to change. In modern-day culture, we get into trouble because we endure sustained stress.
Sustained stress happens from our modern lifestyles of running from one thing to the next. We caffeinate ourselves all day, multitask, and place huge demands on ourselves on a daily basis. Sustained stress can tip our allostatic load towards systemic overload. The results can be vast and varied, from premature aging, to neurological degeneration, obesity, and more.
Stress causes disease
With continuous, chronic stress, you risk these consequences:
- Elevated blood pressure, which might lead to heart or kidney failure.
- Elevated cortisol or stress eating, both can cause obesity.
- Long-term changes in the brain, including depression.
- Accelerated aging.
- Inflammation, which is connected with most chronic and degenerative disease.
- Progression or metastasis of cancer.
- Immune system suppression.
- Anxiety, menstrual cycle problems, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, acne, eczema, and infertility.
Continue to the next post, HPA-D, the New Adrenal Fatigue
I welcome your comments and questions below.