The Physical Effects from Stress
What are the Physical Effects from Stress?
When stress takes over, it can feel like it’s taking years off of your life. The fact is, it may well be. The physical effects from stress are serious.
Illness, job loss, single parenthood, an unhappy marriage, a job you hate, all of these things and more can contribute to chronic stress. When you’re under stress, especially over the long-term, your cortisol levels rise, causing inflammation, which can affect you all the way down to the cellular level and influence all of your major physiological systems.
In the nucleus of each of your cells is a set of chromosomes and at the end of each chromosome is a bit of genetic material known as a telomere. Each time the cell divides, the telomeres grow shorter, until they are gone, at which point the cell dies. Chronic or intense stress can shorten the telomeres prematurely, increasing the risk of age-related ailments. Research conducted in 2014 on a group of nine year old boys discovered that the telomeres of those boys from disadvantaged families were nearly 20% shorter than those in better environments.
The first place we see changes is in the nervous system. The brain is made to adapt to new experiences, particularly in childhood when the brain is developing, particularly the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the fight, flee, or freeze reactions. It is estimated that a third of all anxiety disorders develop in response to early trauma. Children who grow up in orphanages have been shown to have amygdalae that are larger than normal, even after adoption.
People who are under chronic stress or suffer from depression or anxiety disorders are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Scientists aren’t certain why, but it’s believed that stress increases blood pressure and triggers unhealthy behaviors. In some cases, sudden stress can significantly weaken the heart in a condition known as broken heart syndrome.
Chronic stress and gastrointestinal distress seem to go hand in hand. Individuals with irritable bowel syndrome tend to have abnormally high levels of cortisol. The gut actually is responsible for making many of the neurotransmitters – or chemical messengers – used in the body. For this reason, the gut is sometimes referred to as the second brain. It is not surprising then, that chronic low-grade inflammation of the gut and GI tract has actually been linked to depression.
Stress also makes you more vulnerable to illness. Research conducted at the Ohio State College of Medicine found that the physical effects from stress can make vaccines less effective and wounds take longer to heal. Another study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University found that stress lowers the body’s defenses against many viral infections. Scientists believe this is because cortisol, the main stress hormone, inhibits inflammation. When the body has persistently high levels of cortisol, the immune system begins to ignore cortisol. When this happens, cytokines, the protein that causes inflammation, can flare out of control.
Cortisol is critical to regulating blood sugar levels. Cortisol levels follow natural cycles during the day, rising overnight to peak early in the morning, then slowly dropping during the day. Scientists have found patients with depression have especially high cortisol levels. They aren’t quite sure what the significance of this is, but offers a clue to how stress can influence sleep cycles and perhaps how disrupted sleep influences cortisol production.
Chronic stress can cause a vicious cycle in the metabolism. Elevated cortisol increases belly fat, which increases risk of diabetes, which impairs the brain’s stress response. These individuals may also have damage to the hippocampus, a part of the brain particularly vulnerable to the physical effects from stress with a high concentration of cortisol receptors.
The truth of the matter is that chronic stress literally affects every system in our body. The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) system is made of every organ and biological response, which targets stress and its effects to our health. The NEM has six responses – which include inflammation, cardionomic, neuro-affective, metabolic, hormonal, and detoxification. These are a result of an overwhelming amount of stress that is unrelenting and chronic. Chronic stress affects the heart, nervous system, mental state, immunity, sleep, blood pressure, and feelings. It seeps into every system in our body, wreaking havoc on our body function. Realizing that all of our systems are interconnected proves helpful with trying to eradicate stressors in our life, which is the first step in healing from AFS and repairing our natural defenses. Finding methods to deal with stress in our lives and in turn lowering respective cortisol levels will not only improve our health, but could give us years back.