Physical Effects of Stress and Adrenal Fatigue
With today’s way of living, people are often subjected to stress from all sides – from family, relationships, career, health, finances, and society at large. Often, people dismiss stress as a problem that will go away on its own. Unfortunately, this is sometimes not the case. Constant stress can deteriorate your body inside and out. In fact, the physical effects of stress alone can have a devastating impact on your quality of life. And when you allow stress to persist, you might end up suffering from adrenal fatigue.
What is Stress?
Stress is your body’s way of responding to any situation that could threaten it. Often the body deals with acute stress, sudden or short-lived stressors, that demand a response, and then go away.
To be able to cope with stress, the body activates the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response system. This is made up of six circuits that consist of a variety of organs and systems that work interdependently to address a stressful episode.
Among these is the cardionomic circuit and response. This is composed of reactions from the adrenals, cardiovascular system, and autonomic nervous system. The cardionomic response is activated through the hormone cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, which are all produced by the adrenal glands.
Once the body is stressed and the NEM’s cardionomic response is triggered, the heart rate goes up and one’s breathing rate becomes faster. Meanwhile, blood pumps through your body’s system much more vigorously. This helps provide you with the strength and energy for addressing the stress, whether you intend to fight or flee.
Typically, when the stressful episode is over, the body’s functions return to normal. However, when the body encounters prolonged or chronic stress, the NEM stress response system continues to work until its circuits begin to become overwhelmed and overworked. At this point, the body begins to experience the physical effects of stress.
Physical Effects of Stress
Stress, especially chronic stress, manifests in several damaging ways throughout the body. These effects can impact every single aspect of your life: your career, your relationships, and your overall health and wellbeing. And if nothing is done to stop stress from plaguing your life, the physical effects of stress only get worse.
In the case of chronic stress, the NEM stress response system remains activated for a prolonged period of time. At this point, the cardionomic response system is also experiencing overdrive. Because of this, you may experience heart palpitations, stronger heartbeats, a faster resting heart rate, orthostatic hypotension, panic attacks, and anxiety.
At the same time, you may also experience other harmful physical effects of stress. These include low-temperature intolerance and POTS-like symptoms. Meanwhile, people suffering from chronic stress may also experience gastrointestinal distress. This is because chronic stress can cause inflammation in the body which also causes an increase in permeability in the gut lining. Because of this, harmful toxins can enter the body and affect one’s overall health.
As a result of compromised gut health, immune function can also suffer. In fact, one study conducted by the Ohio State College of Medicine found that stress can make vaccines much less effective on the body. Moreover, it also takes wounds longer to heal. Another study found that couples who displayed hostile behaviors toward one another experienced slower wound healing than couples with low hostility. On the other hand, a study conducted by the Universidad del País Vasco in San Sebastián, Spain, found that females with positive social interactions experienced an accelerated rate of wound healing as well as reduced levels of anxiety.
People experiencing chronic stress may also suffer from a reduced ability to handle or tolerate pain. In fact, one study found that increases in both stress and negative mood are positively associated with an increase in pain and a reduction in social activity. Another study conducted in Montréal, Canada found that patients suffering from chronic back pain had higher levels of the primary stress hormone cortisol. This means that pain was alerting the body to pump out more cortisol in order for the body to feel better. However, if cortisol levels continue to stay elevated chronically, this could lead to a downward spiral and break down many organs systems in the body.
Stress and Adrenal Fatigue
As you can see, the physical effects of stress become more severe as a stressful episode becomes chronic. Chronic stress can also trigger a condition known as Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS).
When stress is continuous, the adrenal glands see the need to keep up and even increase their production of the primary stress hormone cortisol. The adrenal glands can only produce cortisol with the aid of the precursor hormone pregnenolone, which is also needed to produce hormones such as testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen.
However, in times of chronic stress, more pregnenolone is needed in order for the adrenal glands to meet the demand for more cortisol. This means there is less of this hormone to produce other essential hormones in the body. Because of this, the body suffers from severe hormonal imbalance, which results in adrenal fatigue.
During adrenal fatigue, the adrenal glands are no longer able to meet the production demands for cortisol. As a result, the NEM stress response system becomes compromised and circuits are unable to function properly. When this happens, the body experiences various symptoms of adrenal fatigue. In advanced cases, these include low blood pressure, dehydration, severe vomiting, diarrhea, severe pain, and even loss of consciousness.
As noted earlier, chronic stress can also affect the body’s ability to modulate pain. This is also the case when you are suffering from adrenal fatigue. Typically, the body manages pain with the help of the hormone dopamine. However, dopamine also depends on pregnenolone production. In fact, one study conducted by Boston University found that pregnenolone sulfate can induce an NMDA-receptor-dependent release of the hormone dopamine.
However, with more pregnenolone needed in order to produce cortisol to deal with chronic stress, there is less pregnenolone available for other hormones. This leads to reduced dopamine production, which causes a lower pain tolerance among adrenal fatigue sufferers.
To avoid experiencing more pain as well as other symptoms of adrenal fatigue, one must develop additional ways to manage stress.
How to Stop Stress From Getting Too Far
Once you understand how damaging the physical effects of stress can be and how prolonged stress can lead to adrenal fatigue, it’s time to find out ways to keep stress from worsening. The goal is to maintain a state where your body’s NEM stress system can continue to work efficiently and your adrenals don’t end up suffering from too much stress.
For remedies that involve foods and supplements, however, it may be best to consult with your physician before trying anything for the first time. People with adrenal fatigue are more subject to paradoxical reactions, allergies, and sudden food sensitivities. Symptoms can include dizziness, lightheadedness, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, nasal congestion, wheezing, hives, itching, eczema, and tingling in the mouth.
That said, here are some effective and easy ways to improve your ability to cope with stress so that you can best avoid experiencing the physical effects of stress and adrenal fatigue.
Regular physical activity
Engaging in regular physical activity can help metabolize the stress hormones in your body and also bring down your stress levels, putting you in a much more relaxed and calmer state. In fact, one study conducted by the University of California found that physical activity can help moderate cortisol reactivity to stress. Another study conducted by the Southern Illinois University Department of Health Education and Recreation found that physical exercise can elicit positive emotion and lead to an improved ability to cope with stress. Similarly, a study published in The Journal of the European Psychiatric Association in 2016 found an association between having a higher level of physical activity and a lower level of depression.
Getting more sleep
Aside from getting exercise more regularly, another easy way to cope with stress is by getting more sleep. This is because sleep helps your body rest and recover from the overactivation of stress, giving it time to repair. Sleep can also help improve your mood and help you respond to stress in a healthier way. According to the American Psychological Association, there is research that Americans would feel happier just by sleeping 60 to 90 minutes more each night. Another study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in Hanoi, Vietnam found that reducing one’s sleep time leads to an increased risk for depression. This is why sleep is so important to healing and good mood.
A calming cup of tea
If you feel that your body has been overwhelmed by stress lately, consider having a regular cup of tea to help calm your nerves and bring down your stress levels. In fact, a study conducted by University College London found that consuming tea for six weeks can lead to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Furthermore, another study conducted by the University of Shizuoka in Shizuoka, Japan found that consumption of low caffeine green tea led to reduced stress levels as well as improved quality of sleep. The aroma of black tea alone can lead to reduced stress levels. In addition, the aroma of Darjeeling tea has also been found to improve mood levels.
Indulge in some chocolate
Having a bit of chocolate from time to time can also help you deal with stress better. One study conducted by the University of Dammam in Saudi Arabia found that consumption of chocolate for two weeks led to less perceived stress. Dark chocolate, in moderation, is probably the best choice.
Talk to someone
Sometimes, you may find that talking to someone about problems can help lower your stress levels significantly. In fact, one study conducted in Malaysia found that social support leads to an improved ability to cope with stress.
Keep these suggestions in mind so you can help reduce your stress levels before they become a problem for your health. The physical effects of stress exist to help your ancestors survive famine and wild animal attacks, to react to dangers, but it is essential to find ways to reduce the stress before it becomes chronic. In today’s world, it’s important to learn how to relax after stress, so that you can prevent it from taking over your life.
© Copyright 2015 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Lam’s Key Question
What are the physical effects of stress?
Especially when facing chronic stress, the body can experience increasingly severe physical effects of stress. These include heart palpitations, a faster resting heart rate, anxiety, and panic attacks. One may also experience gastrointestinal problems, anxiety, depression, and decreased pain tolerance.