Stress is the body’s reaction to an increase in pressure or demands that the individual can physically not cope. Stress can mean different things to different people, but it often stems from problems related to relationships, family, your job or most common – money! Stress can also stem from a build-up of small life events or a major life event that came up unexpectedly.
Aside from feeling an overall sense of anxiety, stress can also heavily impact the organs of the body. When we are stressed, our cortisol levels rise and this can compromise the functioning of the immune system. The hormones Adrenaline and Noradrenaline are also released, which raise the blood pressure and make you sweat more. Not only that, but a raise in these hormones reduce blood flow to the skin and reduce stomach activity (which can greatly impede digestion).
Organs in The Body Affected by Stress:
Stress can cause major skin problems ranging from acne, blisters, psoriasis, random breakouts, eczema and other dermatitis types. Stress makes the skin more sensitive and more reactive, according to Dermatologist and clinical psychologist Richard G. Fried (MD, PhD). By reducing stress, you can help decrease the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines like stress hormones and other chemicals. The release of neuropeptides, for example, can be reduced my managing your stress through different stress management techniques.
When we are stressed, we often develop headaches or migraines. This is due to a build-up of tension around the head, neck and shoulder area and can be prevented by recognizing this build-up and changing our posture or taking a nap. Stress can also affect the brain too! Long-term stress, anxiety or depression can lead to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Research suggests that stress extended over long time periods stimulates the growth of proteins that might cause Alzheimer’s and lead to memory loss.
Individuals who are stressed also tend to smoke more, drink more alcohol and become engaged in harmful activities that can damage the brain. You can help avoid this by taking up yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, guided imagery or biofeedback, all of which have been proven successful in reducing stress.
Because stress increases our blood pressure, we can directly pin-point the link between heart disease and stress. Prolonged stress also affects blood sugar levels which can have direct implications in affecting the way the heart functions. Heavy stress over time can also lead to insulin resistance which can lead to type 2 diabetes and hardening of the arteries.
The emotional effects of stress also alter the heart rhythms, which could pose a risk for individuals who often experience arrhythmia. It is also important to note that stress causes the body to release inflammatory markers into the bloodstream which can worsen heart disease or increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.
Our stomaches are very sensitive to stress. If you try eating after a stressful situation, the nutrients in that food will not be absorbed as properly as they would if you were un-stressed. Chronic stress can change the amount of gastric secretions produced by the stomach, gut motility, mucosal permeability and barrier function, visceral sensitivity and mucosal blood flow!
Our brains and guts are directly connected via tiny little nerves (mainly the vagus nerve) which help communicate messages between the brain and stomach. Thus, the brain (and related stress) can easily effect gut function. Stress doesn’t only affect the physiological functioning of the gut, but it can even change the composition of the microbiota due to changes in neurotransmitter and inflammatory cytokine levels. Chronic stress exposure can lead to a variety of gut-related issues like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcer disease, IBD, IBS and even food allergies!
Similar to the stomach, stress directly affects how well our intestines function. Stress-response in the intestines results in decreased nutrient absorption, decreased oxygenation to the gut, 4 times less blood flow to our digestive parts (and thus reduced metabolism), and decreased enzymatic output by as much as 20,000-fold.
Stress is incredibly detrimental to the health of your gut, and can even damage the delicate tissue, leading to multiple inflammatory diseases and conditions like multiple sclerosis (MS), type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, lupus, Chron’s disease, ulcerative colitis, chronic skin conditions, kidney problems, urinary conditions, allergic and atopic conditions, degenerative conditions, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and a variety of other inflammatory bowel disease (IBS, IBD, etc.).
Interestingly, the connection between the stomach and gut can work in both ways. Not only does the brain affect the digestive tract, but the digestive tract can affect the way we process our emotions. According to Harvard researchers, “this connection goes both ways. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected – so intimately that they should be viewed as one system.”
Stress creates a response in the body known as “fight or flight” where our blood pressure rises, breathing rate increases, heart rate increases and blood sugar levels rise. The pancreas responds to this message by producing a more-than-required amount of insulin, which, if consistently elevated (in the case of chronic stress) can damage our arteries, put us at risk for diabetes and obesity and can contribute to ‘syndrome x’.
Stress is known to decrease fertility and sexual behaviour. Stress hormones like glucocorticoids lower the levels of a brain hormone called gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH; the body’s main sex hormone), and also boost levels of a hormone (GnIH) that suppresses GnRH – a double whammy for the reproductive system. Chronic stress leads to a drop in sex drive, as well as a drop in fertility. Women who are trying to conceive when stressed will have very little success, as has been documented in numerous cases. When glucocorticoids are released in response to stress, our pituitary gland stops releasing follicle-stimulating hormones as well as gonadotropin luteinizing hormones, and thus suppresses testosterone and estradiol production and dampens sexual behaviour.
As we all know, the immune system helps defend the body against foreign bodies (antigens) like bacteria, viruses and cancerous cells. When we are stressed, corticosteroids that are released can suppress the effectiveness of the immune system by lowering the number of lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell which is heavily involved in the immune system) available in the blood (and thus makes us more susceptible to infections).
We all get stressed, and short-term suppression of the immune system isn’t dangerous. However, when this stress becomes chronic, the immune system is consistently compromised. The stress hormone cortisol, when consistently elevated, makes the cells of the immune system unable to respond to hormonal control, subsequently leading to high levels of inflammation that promote disease.
Stress can also have an indirect effect on the immune system, because when people are stressed, they often reach for things to quickly reduce this stress like alcohol, cigarettes, or other unhealthy behavioural coping strategies which compromise the immune system.
Joints & muscles
Aches and pains in the bones, joints and muscles may also be stress-induced. Studies have shown correlations between increased depressive symptoms and reported stress with neck and shoulder pain as well as lower back pain in adolescents. Perceived stress has also been closely correlated with complaints of musculoskeletal symptoms such as shoulder and low back pain. Anti-inflammatory nutrients can offer support to aches and pains that are the result of stress. Holy basil, ginger and turmeric are some of the few, among many, anti-inflammatory agents you can use to treat these pains.