Stress is a commonly neglected but extremely important aspect of our health. Stress isn't just emotional or mental "distress"- such as a difficult job or strained relationship. It can also result from type-A perfectionism, workaholism, lack of communication, or living in conflict with your inner truth. Our body can be stressed by a diet high in sugar or processed foods, autoimmune disease, and even the blood sugar "rollercoaster" resulting from a seemingly "healthy" diet. See our free Healthy Foundations e-book for more information about these health basics.
Some stresses that would be considered "eustress", or positive stress, include exercise, healthy competition, and the birth of a new baby. All stressful events but unequivocally a huge change for the body.
And even if you experience a healthy level of stress, if you do not give your body a chance to relax and repair, your health can suffer! Read on for more specific information about the effects of stress on our physiology.
How does stress affect the body?
The stress response is not, in and of itself, harmful to our health. It has a tremendous role in allowing humanity to survive up to this point. When the body recognizes a stress, such as an injury, inflammation, or emotional trauma, the adrenal glands will produce excitatory hormones- adrenaline & cortisol- to help us cope. To your body, any small stress might as well be running from a tiger! You might know this as the "fight or flight" response.
We need the stress response to wane so that the "rest and digest" mode of the nervous system can take over. When your body is in a parasympathetic or relaxed state, cortisol and adrenaline levels go down, heart rate decreases, and healing can occur.
How does the stress response affect our health?
When we have an autoimmune disease, the immune system's B cells (meant to make antibodies to foreign invaders) make antibodies to a tissue in the body, such as the pancreas or thyroid. They attach to the tissue and signal that it should be destroyed. Stress, blood sugar spikes, lack of sleep, and overexercising all promote the activity of Th17 cells, which promote the autoimmune attack. To add insult to injury, regulatory Th3 cells cannot keep this function in check when the body is under stress.
How to improve regulatory T cell function: endorphins (exercise, low-dose naltrexone), glutathione, vitamin D
This often leads to increased food intolerances and increased intestinal permeability, also known as "leaky gut". The body will react to undigested proteins passing through the intestinal lining, mount an immune response to these foods. The release of these inflammatory mediators (read: cortisol) further weakens the barrier, and worsens the "leaky gut".
Under normal circumstances, neural stem cells will mature into neurons (active brain cells) or astrocytes (a type of glial cell). According to researchers at the University of California, chronic stress can cause these cells to mature into oligodendrocytes (myelin-producing cells). So essentially, you get less of the electrically active neurons and more protective cells. This is thought to be why chronic stress can have a negative effect on learning and memory: Stress affects the way communication occurs in your brain at the cellular level.
The blood-brain barrier is a protective mechanism which separates the circulatory system (blood) from the extracellular fluid surrounding the brain. The external factor of stress is a critical component to the development of central nervous system disorders. Stress and high cortisol release weaken this barrier and can increase the likelihood of an infectious material, toxins, or drugs passing through the BBB. "It is well known that inflammatory mediators in the blood destabilize [tight junctions] leading to barrier compromise..." (Li et al. 2009).
Modifying your lifestyle to promote a healthy stress response
Never fear- you don't have to stress about your stress! There are many ways to address the stressors in your life in a healthy, productive way. These include: meditation (even 5 minutes per day), yoga, long walks, taking time for silence and contemplation, addressing emotional health, and prioritizing self-care.