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The Science of Stress

And its toll on the body

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We tend to think of stress as a bad thing, and that’s certainly fair considering how many chronic diseases and mental health issues are stress related. But we often fail to distinguish between sources of stress and the body’s response to those stressors. In doing so, we downplay our ability to change how we perceive life’s slings and arrows, thereby mitigating the effect of stress on our well-being.

Understanding the body’s response to stressors and learning techniques to cope with stress are paramount for cultivating health now and minimizing the risk of stress-related disease in the years to come.

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Stress under the microscope

The physiological stress response is triggered when we perceive there is a threat to our survival, safety, status, or well-being. The stress response, commonly referred to as the “fight-or-flight” response, is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system.

Coming face-to-face with a lion, tiger, or bear triggers the adrenal glands to release neurotransmitters such as adrenalin and noradrenalin, as well as the hormone cortisol. Cortisol has an anti-inflammatory effect in the body and mobilizes stored glucose for energy.

These chemical changes cause an increase in heart rate, respiration, alertness, and muscular strength to promote survival.

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Modern-day stressors

For most suburban Canadians, however, our stressors tend to look less like wild animals and more like rising inflation, work deadlines, and family responsibilities. While many of these stressors don’t pose a threat to our immediate survival, the body perceives them as a danger nonetheless, and launches the stress response to help us cope and perform.

For instance, getting butterflies in your stomach before giving a work presentation is a sign that the stress response is engaged to enhance performance.

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Acute, chronic, and post-traumatic stress

Acute psychological stress may manifest as headache, insomnia, upset stomach, muscle tension, and/or irritability, although everyone’s experience of stress is different.

“If stressors continue, we ‘adapt’ to our stress,” explains Dr. Katie Thomson Aitken, naturopath and author of Create Calm. Once stress becomes chronic, the initial feelings of alertness and panic fade, although this isn’t necessarily a good sign.

“This may feel better in the short term, but over time, it can create feelings of fatigue and contribute to other health challenges if not addressed,” Thomson Aitken adds. If left untreated, chronic stress can also lead to burnout.

Among some people, acute stress can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “How our brain stores the stressful experience can change how we experience the stress moving forward,” says Thomson Aitken. “In PTSD, the stressful event being remembered is experienced in the body as if it is happening in the present: a re-creation of the stress response rather than a chronic one.”

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Coping mechanisms

Helpful coping strategies include confrontation of stressors and cognitive reappraisal.

Acknowledging where you may be taking on unnecessary stressors may be helpful. “Many people with anxiety tend toward perfectionist thinking,” says Thomson Aitken. This might present as feeling the need to maintain a spotless home at the expense of getting enough sleep, for instance. “This is the type of stressor that can be changed by internal work to challenge and reframe perfectionism.”

When confronted by a stressor that feels massive, Thomson Aitken recommends reframing the problem by identifying what is within our control and what is not. “This type of thinking moves us from despair to hope,” says Thomson Aitken, “and can make a huge difference in how we experience a stressor.”

Unhealthy responses to stressors include magnification (catastrophization), rumination, and helplessness. These responses can intensify cortisol release and condition the body to become more sensitized to future stressors.

An exaggerated response to stress contributes to cortisol dysfunction, inflammation, and increased pain, opening the door to stress-related health conditions.

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Stress management

Many people are aware of the benefits of meditation, deep breathing, and yoga for stress management. But oftentimes these practices are overwhelming for those who are new to them and are already feeling stressed.

In this case, Thomson Aitken recommends getting back to basics by considering the foundations of health. Invest in your bedtime routine, nutrition habits, exercise regimen, mindfulness practice, and social connections. If that still feels like too much, choose one and watch what changes!

You may benefit from outsourcing your stress management so that you can feel taken care of. Consider acupuncture or massage therapy to reduce stress and promote relaxation.

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Natural supports for stress

Supplement

Benefit for stress 

ashwagandha

has antistress and antianxiety properties, which may alleviate insomnia and depression

L-theanine

may improve stress-related symptoms

magnesium

may help improve subjective sense of anxiety and may help treat depression

rhodiola

influences the release of stress hormones and may improve stress-induced conditions

lemon balm

may decrease stress, anxiety, and depression

valerian

has antianxiety properties

vitamin B complex

supplementation may benefit stress

vitamin D and omega-3

co-supplementation improved depression, anxiety, and sleep quality among women with low vitamin D and prediabetes

probiotics

may improve mental function among those with anxiety and depression

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Your body on stress

Cognitive health 

Chronic stress can promote atrophy of the brain and negatively affect processing and cognition.

Mood disorders 

Stress is associated with mood disorders such as depression.

Immune function 

Stress can impair immune activity and promote the growth of malignant tumours.

Gastrointestinal health

Stress promotes inflammation in the gut and triggers intestinal hyperpermeability (leaky gut).

Hormone health 

Stress can alter the normal functioning of the thyroid, pancreas, hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands.

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