Stress really isn’t taken as seriously as it should be. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘Oh it’s no big deal it’s probably just down to stress’? I know I have heard it countless times, and have personally fallen guilty to ignoring phantom symptoms assuming they will pass when the stress does. The problem is, more often than not, stress can become a very serious problem. Many people (myself included) don’t know, or even acknowledge the fact that they are stressed until it rears its ugly head in the form of emotional and physical symptoms, by which point your body is already in complete shutdown mode.
So what is stress? Well, stress by definition, comes about in three different ways – emotional (Anxiety, death of a loved one), physical (training for a marathon, heavy lifting) and chemical (eg alcohol, drugs, medicines etc). So how does your body cope with stress? Before we begin let me explain the vital hormones and neurotransmitters involved with stressed….
Hormones & Neurotransmitters
Adrenaline is the hormone released by the adrenal glands in stressful situations to prepare the body for attack. This is more commonly known as ‘The fight or flight’ hormone. When presented with a situation that the brain views as dangerous, the nervous system sends a response to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline.
Known as the ‘stress hormone’. Cortisol is released throughout the day regardless of stress. It is the hormone responsible for waking us up in the morning, and staying focused throughout the day. Cortisol spikes drastically when we feel stressed. It increases our short term memory, alerts us, reduces inflammation and clears the liver of toxins. On the other hand, cortisol can have some very negative long term effects. Over production of this hormone can lower bone density, creates blood sugar imbalances, and lower the production of serotonin causing anxiety in the sufferer.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter found mainly in the brain, bowels and blood. 80-90% is found in the gastrointestinal tract. It is responsible for transmitting messages from the brain to these areas of the body for smooth functioning. Serotonin plays an important part in mood and feelings of overall happiness and well being. A deficiency in serotonin can lead to a number of symptoms, most notably depression and anxiety, but also IBS, sleep problems and more. If serotonin levels are too high it can lead to loss of libido, upset stomach, changes in weight, increased sweating etc.
Dopamine is the feel good neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for feelings of accomplishment, focus, motivation, learning, memory, sleep and more. Both excess and depleted levels can be the cause of various illnesses.
This is the hormone responsible for sleep. Melatonin works in conjunction with cortisol, throughout the day. When cortisol levels are high, melatonin levels lower and vice versa. Melatonin is naturally affected by light levels, which is why we feel sleepy when it is dark outside and awake when it is light.
What Happens When We Are Stressed?
‘Fight Or Flight’ Stage
Well, as many of us know, when initial stress shocks the system our bodies kick into the famous ‘Fight or Flight mode’. Because our bodies need to be prepared to quickly defend themselves from the initial stressor, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in, sending signals to our adrenal glands (located on top of the kidneys) to release adrenaline. Adrenaline is what is responsible for that heart fluttering, fully focused burst of energy that we feel when placed into a sudden stressful situation. Many things happen in your body when adrenaline is released :
1. Your liver releases glucose to fuel your muscles for the ‘fight or flight’.
2. Our heart starts to beat faster, increasing our blood pressure.
3. Our muscles tense, ready for take-off.
4. Our digestive system slows down to almost a stop, as the body sees this as wasteful energy until the stressful event is over.
5. The pupils dilate to improve visual accuracy.
6. The skin pales as the blood rushes to the muscles and organs.
7. Blood clotting increases in case of injury.
8. Lungs expand to allow for extra oxygen intake.
9. Short term memory stops so as to save energy.
The Resilience Stage
This is supposed to be a short term reaction, with the hope being that the body will return to balance following the resolution to the situation, but often times, the stress continues and the body moves into the next stage of stress which is the resilience mode. The body continues the best it can to release adrenaline along with high levels of cortisol. Eventually, the adrenals become stressed, and the body and its systems become tired. Many people who are chronically stressed will notice the following symptoms:
1. Changes in digestion such as chronic constipation or diarrhoea.
2. Changes in metabolism
3. Decreased memory (the body sees creating memories wasteful energy as it struggles to fight stress)
4. Muscular tension
6. Sleep impairment (I will explain in more detail later)
7. Increased Blood Pressure
8. A nagging ‘butterfly’ feeling in the stomach that decreases appetite.
9. Increased appetite, especially for carbohydrates as our endorphine production decreases with stress.
10. Poor immune system and thus tendency to become sick easily.
11. Problems with blood sugar level maintenance.
The Burnout Stage
As these two hormones change normal bodily functions in the long term we become deficient in essential nutrients and our systems become exhausted leading to the Burnout Stage.
This stage is where our adrenal glands shrivel and dry up. Our body cannot produce the feel good hormones and neurotransmitters that it needs and sleep becomes a huge problem as does the ability to simply cope with everyday life.
Many people find they become
1. Irrational and emotional
2. Anxious and depressed
3. Insomnia and sleep disturbance
4. Foggy head and an inability to concentrate or retain information.
5. Changes in menstraution
6. Becoming sick easily and increased allergies
7. Weight Loss or Weight Gain
8. Skin problems such as eczema, acne, dry skin
9. Infertility, low sperm count and testosterone levels in men.
10. Stomach ulcers and other digestive disorders.
11. Bloating and water retention.
The longer we are left in this burnout stage, the more serious the consequences become. As our magnesium becomes depleted, calcium takes over, entering the cardiovascular system in the form of plaque. This in turn can cause heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.
There is an increased risk of osteoporosis due to cortisol levels affecting the breakdown and rebuilding of bones.
So, maybe stress is a bit serious after all?
So what are the physiological effects of stress, apart from the symptoms we can see and feel in ourselves? Most importantly however, what are the diet and lifestyle changes that can help with stress management? You can read these in the next blog post ...(click here)