How stress affects your health

Do you know how many ways stress affects your health? Let's take a look at just a few. Photo: Stephen Poff (Flickr)

SALEM, Or., August 16, 2012 — Your body is constantly trying to re-balance itself to maintain homeostasis - that is, internal stability or equilibrium. If everything works correctly and your stress is minimal, you will have a happy environment of good body chemistry, temperature, and pressure. You will be in a low stress zone. It’s when things go wrong that your stress goes up and your health suffers.

Stress and Health

If you have stress that is extreme or of unusual and long-lasting duration, your body’s normal ways maintaining equilibrium will not be enough to negate the effects of the stress. We know from Hans Selye’s groundbreaking work about the stress cycle that you may find that your response to stress has triggered a wide-ranging set of body changes called General Adaptation Syndrome – a systematic cycle of breakdown.

You will be pulled out of balance and your body will show a wide range of signs of stress.

Lets’ look at the progression of stress and its effects on the human body.

Stage I. Alarm Reaction. This is caused by stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal gland. This first stage is immediate and short-lived. The adrenal gland releases hormones such as cortisol (hydrocortisone, the infamous “stress hormone”) and adrenaline that rush throughout the body. Tremendous amounts of glucose and oxygen are sent to the muscles and organs. You become immediately more alert, your heart pumps furiously, and fat and protein are released from your liver. Breathing rate increases, sweat increases, and digestion decreases. You are ready to flee or to fight!

These immediate effects of stress are normal, useful, and not harmful when when the stress is managed and short-lived. This is the challenge in life.

Your body’s responses in this alarm reaction are designed to increase circulation rapidly, make energy available to the brain and muscles, and decrease all nonessential activities so that you can concentrate on dealing with whatever caused the stress. But if the stress is too great and this reaction is too extreme or persists too long, it can cause catastrophic damage, severe illness, and death. We see this all the time and wonder what happened. “He was so healthy.” Apparently not.

People may have sweaty hands or rapid heart rate and high blood pressure when the immediate cause of stress has gone. This is a continuation of the alarm reaction stage. When the body is still in a hyper-vigilant state and has not turned down its reaction, this is known as the stress response and can continue indefinitely. How good are your heart rate and blood pressure?

As your body continues to react to stress, you move into the next stage of the stress response.

Stage II. Resistance Reaction. As stress continues, the brain secretes more hormones, as does the adrenal gland. More protein is broken down and amino acids converted into sugar (a process called “gluconeogenesis”) to be used for energy. Blood sugar levels, which may have been depleted in Stage I, return to normal. Blood pH returns to normal but blood pressure stays high, mostly because of water retention. More of the stress hormone cortisol is released, which over time this can lead to an increase in fat around organs.

All of us have gone through the resistance stage. Some people however, continue through this for long periods of time. If the stress is chronic or severe, or if for any other reason the resistance stage continues, the body gives up and moves into the third and final stage.

Stage III. Exhaustion. This is the final stage of stress. Cells lose function, become less effective, and begin to die. Blood sugar levels drop and cells don’t receive nutrients. Organs become weak. The heart, blood vessels, and adrenal glands are put through tremendous demands that will eventually drive a person in this stage into significant ill-health. Unless this stage is rapidly reversed, vital organs cease functioning and the person dies.

The Brain and the Effects of Stress

Chronic stress affects the brain. Stress-related hormones alter physical structures in the brain, the hippocampus, in ways that affect memory, learning, and mood. Take a look at what happens after a major trauma. The three cycles of stress are accelerated and this varies only in degrees between people and how they can handle the stress.

People who have experienced post traumatic stress syndrome have high levels of cortisol, and this shrinks the size of the brain. The stressful experience must be addressed appropriately, otherwise the stress response will continue progressing.

Another part of the brain that is affected by stress is the amygdala - the part that regulates fear and other emotions. During chronic stress, the amygdala grows larger while the hippocampus shrinks. The amygdala is the seat of emotions and the hippocampus is the place of memory.

As the amygdala grows in size, anxiety and fear are the major emotions sensed. (The amygdala also becomes larger and more active in people who are depressed). But because the hippocampal cells involved in memory are shrinking and not transmitting information effectively, a person can’t connect the feelings of fear to memories of real events. This is how and why emotions are produced after significant stress and can alter a person’s emotional state.

How is stress impacting your life? How is stress affecting your health? How is it affecting your mind? Have you noticed your emotions change when you are stressed?

Start taking care of yourself by monitoring yourself. When your heart rate or blood pressure increase, is it because of physical activity, or due to an emotional event that you played out in your head? When does your breathing rate change? When do you sweat more; at night, in the afternoon?

All these physiological signs give tremendous clues to how you are dealing with stress. Your first job is to begin to notice when they are happening. Next, you must identify the source of the stress that is causing them. Finally, you must appropriately manage the stress and, and continue to monitor your physical and emotional states.


Dr Peter Lind practices metabolic and neurologic chiropractic in his wellness clinic in Salem, Oregon. USA. He is the author of three books on health, a novel, and hundreds of wellness articles. His clinical specialty is in physical, nutritional, and emotional stress.

He has a rich source of stress and health info for you at StressHedge.


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Peter Lind

Dr. Peter Lind has written five books about healthy lifestyle and specifically subjects such as food, diet, nutrition, exercise, and stress. He has written one thriller about agriculture genetic engineering that has been written into a screenplay. 

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