Now more than ever, it seems that stress is a part of everyone’s life. Whether dealing with health concerns, work demands, relationship or financial challenges, we are presented with scenarios that involuntarily elicit a stress response.
It’s logical to think that if only we had the ability to eliminate the source of stressors affecting our lives, we would feel completely relaxed. But it’s likely that in most circumstances, stress would make its way in. And that’s why the physiological stress response is necessary. In fact, evolutionarily, our very survival has depended on it.
The idea of “fight-or-flight” is one example of how the stress response is our body’s way of protecting us. Research has shown that with this mechanism, autonomic and hormonal activities increase which allows for muscular exertion to be maximized. Often in stressful situations, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), a part of the autonomic nervous system, comes into play and releases the stress hormone cortisol. This physiological response is what prepares the body to face the perceived threat.
Overall, stress responses involve lots of variation. Different situations induce different responses and each of us may react uniquely, even when dealing with the same situation. This is because we all have our own innate threshold for stress endurance. As soon as the amount of stress we experience surpasses this limit, the effects of stress manifest in unhealthy ways throughout our bodies. And unfortunately, the more we experience this degree of stress, the lower this threshold becomes.
Evolution has equipped us only with the coping mechanisms to combat short term stress. The experience of chronic stress is really what has the capacity to impose problems on our health and overall sense of wellbeing. The effects of long term stress manifest all throughout our bodies and affect nearly every biological system.
Now, I’m sure it’s not news to you that long term stress is problematic. But, just how bad is it really? How does it impact our physical health? How can we protect ourselves by learning to manage it? These are exactly the types of questions that we will delve into.
How does stress affect our Immune system?
Do you ever notice that you become sick more easily when under high levels of stress? This pattern can be attributed scientifically to the effects that stress has on the immune system.
When enduring severe stress, the immune system becomes compromised. The result of this is that the body is more susceptible to becoming ill, as the mechanisms by which it keeps us healthy are weakened by the physical toll that stress takes on the body.
Chronic stress poses the most severe threat to immunocompromised or elder individuals. Aging causes a gradual decline in immune function and therefore the elderly are less able to have effective antibody responses and are more vulnerable to infections and disease.
The idea that stress levels have an impact on immunity dates back to around 200AC, when Aelius Galenus, a physician and philosopher of the Roman Empire, declared that compared to women who experience limited stress, women who experience high levels of stress are more likely to have cancer.
While this may seem like an extreme and unlikely statement, modern science has validated this logic. Research has shown that though steroid hormones involved in the stress response have powerful anti-inflammatory effects, they ultimately suppress the immune system.
It has been found that stress may decrease the activity of important types of cells involved in immune mechanisms such as certain T lymphocytes and natural killer cells. Because of this effect, stress can induce the growth of malignant cells or cause the expansion of tumors.
Additionally, it has been shown that stress adversely affects many hormones and hormone receptors that play a role in the immune response. Research findings have demonstrated that stress increases the concentration of the hormone, norepinephrine, in the bloodstream. This adversely affects the function of phagocytes and lymphocytes, key elements of a strong immune response. Studies have also found that the release of several other hormones in the body following a stress response results in further suppression of the immune system. The effect that stress has on several different hormones reveals its large scale impact.
Overall, the physiological processes that are prompted by stress all serve to weaken the body’s natural defenses. This explains why under high levels of stress, we are more prone to catching a cold or some other form of illness.
How does stress affect the GI system?
I’m sure many of us either personally experience or know others who experience various changes to eating habits and digestion when dealing with stress. It seems that out of all systems in the body, stress has a nearly universal impact on the GI system. Even a short burst of stress can cause an upset stomach or the feeling of “butterflies” in the belly.
It’s especially important here to remember that stress impacts different people in different ways. The imposition of stress on the GI system is particularly interesting because it can cause symptoms of either extreme. For example, perhaps some of us turn to overeating, while others barely eat at all. Perhaps some of us experience a rumbly tummy and the urgent need to use the bathroom, while others are left feeling sluggish and constipated for days.
Regardless of the unique symptoms each individual may experience, stress has a way of disrupting the many processes that take place in the GI tract. When an acute stressor is encountered, various stress hormones are released in order for the body to have immediate access to energy reserves. The energy tends to go to skeletal muscles and the brain, as the distribution is based on which tissues are the most active when under stress.
Physiological processes that are deemed less “critical” such as digestion are not prioritized. Therefore, eating habits and other gastrointestinal functions are disrupted by the body’s involuntary diversion of energy, prompted by the stress response.
Additionally, stress may dramatically weaken the dissemination of important messages in the body. The gut has hundreds of millions of neurons that are critical to maintaining effective signal transmission and communication with the brain. Stress, especially mental and emotional types, affects this brain-gut interaction, specifically through increasing visceral sensitivity and activating mucosal mast cells. This can result in a range of problems and uncomfortable sensations such as bloating.
Though it seems that stress has some type of gastrointestinal effect on the majority of people, it particularly affects people who suffer from preexisting bowel disorders such as Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or Colitis. This is because due to the secretion of certain biological mediators, stress increases the response of the GI tract to any inflammation, may reactivate previous inflammation, and worsen the process of inflammation.
The inflammatory response induced by stress is linked to many GI diseases such as Crohn’s disease and other ulcerative issues. Research has suggested that even stress experienced as a child can lead to the onset of these diseases in adulthood.
How does stress affect the microbiome and diet?
The trillions of bacteria and other microbes that reside in the digestive tract make up the gut microbiome. Stress, especially chronic stress, has the potential to impact this bacterial composition.
Changes to these very important bacteria can cause a variety of health problems. The proper balance of microorganisms in the gut microbiome is not only important for strong digestion, but has also been shown by research to play an essential role in maintaining immune and metabolic homeostasis and protecting the body against pathogens.
Research has also shown that stress has an effect on appetite. This poses a problem for the microbiome, as it is particularly sensitive to dietary changes. Certain foods that people often turn to when stressed can fuel the “bad” bacteria in our bodies and drown out the effects of the “good” bacteria. This disruption of gut bacteria, known as dysbiosis, is associated with a range of health conditions such as various inflammatory diseases and infections.
Additionally, dietary changes can result in an onset of heartburn or acid reflux and can exacerbate acid reflux in individuals who have previously experienced this condition. Stress may also cause changes to how food is swallowed such as by taking in more air. This can cause symptoms such as burping, bloating, or general gassiness.
Stress also affects how food travels through the digestive tract and can induce painful muscle contractions in the bowel. The altered pace at which food travels may result in either diarrhea or constipation.
Overall, stress has a variety of effects on the GI system and can manifest through a range of symptoms that present in either extremes depending on the individual experiencing the stress or the type of stress that is encountered.
Now that we have examined some of the physical repercussions that stress has on the body, let’s discuss how we can best protect ourselves.
How can we learn to manage stress?
Learning to manage stress is extremely important not only for our mental health, but also for our physical health. Now that we know how detrimental stress may be, it is critical that we actively learn to protect ourselves and work to minimize its effects.
Though we may not have control over what happens in our surrounding environments and the stressful situations that we may encounter, we do have control over how we choose to respond.
French scientist and philosopher, Claude Bernard, believed that “the maintenance of life is critically dependent on keeping our internal milieu constant in the face of a changing environment” (Schneiderman et al., 2005). Even if the outside world can feel at times like complete chaos, we have the ability to not let it affect us personally by taking refuge in a place of inner peace and calm.
By bringing mindfulness techniques such as yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, journaling etc. into our daily lives, we can prepare our bodies and minds for stressful stimuli. In doing so, we may transition from being passive recipients of stress to being active protectors of our mental and physical health. If we learn to turn inwards and to feel that we are okay, even when what’s in flux around us may not be, we will gain the ability to remain calm in the face of stress.
Additionally, we can implement certain tools to diffuse any stress that we may encounter. Whether for you that’s a face mask, a cup of herbal tea, a scented candle, an epsom salt bath, or taking your Calm Alchemy pills, it is important to know that you have a self-care regimen to turn to. Aside from the direct effect of these tools, simply knowing that these options are available to us, provides a sense of control and comfort.
Lastly, in order to manage stress, it is critical to understand that you have complete autonomy in terms of where you exert your energy. It’s easy to feel like you need to devote all of your time and energy into everything you do and everyone you encounter but respecting your energetic boundaries is so important for stress management.
If your instincts tell you that something in your life is toxic or simply isn't serving you, let it go. Instead of enduring stress in elements of your life that are not healthy, trust that you know your own path best. Listening to your body is the only way to protect it and combat stress for a healthier you.
Yaribeygi, Habib et al. “The impact of stress on body function: A review.”EXCLI journal vol. 16 1057-1072. 21 Jul. 2017, doi:10.17179/excli2017-480
Schneiderman, Neil et al. “Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants.”Annual review of clinical psychology vol. 1 (2005): 607-28. doi:10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.1.102803.144141
Thursby, Elizabeth, and Nathalie Juge. “Introduction to the human gut microbiota.”The Biochemical journal vol. 474,11 1823-1836. 16 May. 2017, doi:10.1042/BCJ20160510
van Tilburg, Miranda A.L. “Stress Effects on The Body.”American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 2018, www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress/effects-gastrointestinal