Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction. Not always as a response to bad experiences, stress can actually be good for you. At one time, stress was seen as the body’s way of helping us to get out of trouble, such as escaping a dangerous animal during hunting. Also known as the flight-or-fight response, it gets the body ready for action. But nowadays the term ‘stress’ is seen negatively, often blamed on the demands of the modern world. The body responds to stress by releasing hormones and increasing both the heart and breathing rates, at which time, the brain gets more oxygen which gives you an edge when responding to a problem.
Stress can be triggered by the pressures of everyday responsibilities at home and work, and by infrequent, negative events such as the breakdown of a relationship, physical illness, losing a job, or the death of a loved one. In the short-term, stress is a normal part of life, helping you to cope with certain situations that doesn’t cause any lasting problems. Long-term stress on the other hand can trigger a variety of symptoms and can affect your overall health and well-being. In fact, it’s estimated that about 70% of doctor visits and 80% of serious illnesses may be exacerbated or linked to stress.
Stress affects the nervous system
When you're stressed, the brain's sympathetic nerves signal the adrenal glands to release a cocktail of chemicals, including epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. Persistently high levels of these chemicals can damage memory and learning, and increase your odds of suffering from depression.
It’s harder to digest foods
Stress has numerous symptoms, including a dry mouth, indigestion and nausea. Stimulating the muscles of the intestines, is can cause excess gas and diarrhea or constipation. These symptoms every so often, although a nuisance, are not harmful. Regular bouts of these however can increase your risk of developing Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), severe heartburn and stomach ulcers.
Cravings for sugary and fatty foods is increased
Studies have linked cortisol, the hormone released during times of stress, to cravings for sugary and fatty foods. Scientists believe that the hormone attaches to receptors in the brain that control food intake, making you more likely to reach for the chocolate bar in your top drawer or raid the children’s treat cabinet. And what’s more, if you already have a high body mass index, you may be even more susceptible.
The immune system is weakened
Short-term stress is actually good for the immune system, helping the body to fend off infection. Persistent stress however not only makes it harder for the body to fight bacteria and infection, but also slows wound healing – actually leaving you more susceptible to infection.
Insomnia is more likely
Insomnia is a common result of stress. Worrying – or ‘stressing’ about things can make it difficult to fall and stay asleep. Waking in the night multiple times severely affects the quality of sleep, causing hyperarousal – a state of increased psychological and physiological tension – which can upset the balance between sleep and wakefulness.
It increases the production of blood sugar
Stress hormones trigger the liver to produce more blood sugar in order to give you the kick of energy. This is fine in small doses, but if this occurs for a long period of time, you’re at a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. And continual elevated glucose levels can turn you into a diabetic.
Chest infections can become a common occurrence
High-stress situations often make us breathe faster as our bodies try to cope. And in severe situations, you can also find yourself struggling for breath or hyperventilating. In the long-term this strain on your respiratory system can make you more susceptible to upper-respiratory infections and asthma.
It affects the cardiovascular system
When you’re stressed, your heart beats faster and your blood pressure rises. A temporary increased heart rate is fine, but when your body is having to cope with this day-in, day-out for long periods, it takes its toll and can cause a narrowing of the arteries and elevated cholesterol levels – upping your chances of heart disease, heart attack, and a stroke.
The body’s muscles suffer
When the body is stressed, the muscles tense to help deal with whatever is causing the stress. Having muscles that are constantly tense and tight can result in headaches and migraines, and neck, shoulder, and back pain. Chronic stress may also increase the likelihood of developing brittle bone disease (osteoporosis).
The reproduction system is affected
Stress can either lengthen or shorten the menstrual cycle, stop it altogether or make periods much more painful. High levels of stress can also make the possibility of developing thrush or bacterial vaginosis (BV) more likely.
Don’t forget that a little bit of stress is thought to be good for the memory and can actually motivate us by making our bodies work harder. But too much stress for long periods of time can make you feel like you’ve got the whole world on your shoulders. If you think you’re suffering with extreme stress, it’s always wise to consult your healthcare provider for expert advice.