*Many people are aware of the alarming number of folks who are suffering with a wide range of what are now considered common health problems. High blood pressure; acid reflux; diabetes; ulcers; arthritis; obesity; asthma; and many others make up the list.
It is a common belief that these are conditions expected at some point in life.
However, on closer examination, it seems that there is a mysterious culprit that is a factor in all of these problems: STRESS.
Maybe this sounds a little overdramatic, but unfortunately the reality is that excessive, untreated stress can actually kill you.
Stress isn’t just a state of mind — it can affect your entire body. It is said that seventy-five to 90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses.
Stress can trigger the body’s response to perceived threat or danger, the Fight-or-Flight response. During this reaction, certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength. Originally named for its ability to enable us to physically fight or run away when faced with danger, it’s now activated in situations where neither response is appropriate, like in traffic or during a stressful day at work. When the perceived threat is gone, systems are designed to return to normal function via the relaxation response, but in our times of chronic stress, this often doesn’t happen enough, causing damage to the body.
Stress that continues without relief can lead to a condition called distress — a negative stress reaction. Distress can lead to physical symptoms including headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and problems sleeping. Research suggests that stress also can bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases.
To understand what stress does to us, imagine you lived tens of thousands of years ago, at a time when humans were threatened by hungry animals such as saber-toothed tigers and wolves. Our caveman ancestors had to be able to react instantly, either by fighting the beasts or running away.
So humans evolved the ability to respond to a stressful situation instantly, by preparing the body for “fight or flight.” Under sudden stress, you will get a burst of exceptional strength and endurance, as your body pumps out stress hormones:
- Your heart speeds up
- Blood flow to your brain and muscles increases up to 400 percent
- Your digestion stops (so it doesn’t use up energy that’s needed elsewhere)
- Your muscle tension increases
- You breathe faster, to bring more oxygen to your muscles
Sometimes we can still benefit from this “fight or flight” response – like the case of a mother whose child was pinned under a concrete slab during a tornado. Under stress, she found the strength to lift the huge slab with her bare hands, even though it later took three men to move it.
But much of the time in modern life, the “fight or flight” response won’t help. Yet those stress hormones still flood your system, preparing you for physical action. And if you are under stress frequently, it can harm your physical health.
Cortisol is an important hormone in the body, secreted by the adrenal glands and involved in the following functions and more:
- Proper glucose metabolism
- Regulation of blood pressure
- Insulin release for blood sugar maintenance
- Immune function
- Inflammatory response
Normally, it’s present in the body at higher levels in the morning, and at its lowest at night. Although stress isn’t the only reason that cortisol is secreted into the bloodstream, it has been termed “the stress hormone” because it’s also secreted in higher levels during the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, and is responsible for several stress-related changes in the body. Small increases of cortisol have some positive effects:
- A quick burst of energy for survival reasons
- Heightened memory functions
- A burst of increased immunity
- Lower sensitivity to pain
- Helps maintain homeostasis in the body
While cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress, it’s important that the body’s relaxation response to be activated so the body’s functions can return to normal. Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, the body’s stress response is activated so often that functioning often doesn’t have a chance to return to normal, producing chronic stress.
The following are seven of the major health effects caused by stress. If you’re experiencing any of these conditions and believe they may be linked to stress, seek medical counseling as soon as possible:
Diabetes occurs when the body produces too little insulin to process all the sugars in your body. As these sugars build up, you may experience a number of health problems including thirst, headaches and weight loss. Over time, the condition can cause complications ranging from heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, eye damage, nerve damage, diabetic neuropathy, skin conditions, and gastrointestinal problems.
2. High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is often referred to as a “silent killer” because there are few actual symptoms that present with the disease. High levels of stress can bring on this condition, which can result in an aneurysm, coronary heart disease, enlarged heart, damage to the brain and even heart attack. If that isn’t a good enough reason to learn to manage your stress – I don’t know what is!
3. Weight Gain
People under high levels of stress often experience fluctuations in weight – as anyone who’s ever taken comfort in candy bars knows all too well. However, if your weight gain gets out of control, you could be putting yourself at risk for developing cancer, heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, sleep apnea, liver disease and gallbladder disease. If you notice that you’ve put on a few pounds, try hitting the gym – exercise is also a natural stress reliever.
Stress is a natural part of life but its effects don’t have to be a natural part of your health.
Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!
The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.
Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. A health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics, Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics.
For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com