Stress and The Body

Among all the factors contributing to poor health and early death, stress is perhaps the most pernicious. In bygone days, the stress response was a lifesaving biological function, enabling us to run from predators or take down prey.

But today, we are turning on the same “lifesaving” reaction to cope with fear of public speaking, difficult bosses and traffic jams. The sheer number of stress-inducing situations that face us on a daily basis can make it difficult to turn the stress response off.

As a result, you may be marinating in corrosive stress hormones around the clock, and this can have serious consequences, from adding stubborn fat to your belly to elevating your blood pressure and triggering a heart attack.

How Stress Affects Your Body

To give you a quick overview, when you experience acute stress — be it real or imagined, as your body cannot decipher the difference — your body releases stress hormones (such as cortisol) that prepare your body to either fight or flee the stressful event.

Your heart rate increases, your lungs take in more oxygen, your blood flow increases, and parts of your immune system become temporarily suppressed, which reduces your inflammatory response to pathogens and other foreign invaders.

When stress becomes chronic, your immune system becomes increasingly desensitized to cortisol, and since inflammation is partly regulated by this hormone, this decreased sensitivity heightens the inflammatory response and allows inflammation to get out of control. 

Inflammation, in turn, is a hallmark of most diseases, from diabetes to heart disease, and cancer. Elevated cortisol levels also affect your memory by causing a gradual loss of synapses in your prefrontal cortex.

Stress may even trigger the onset of dementia. In one study, 72 percent — nearly three out of four — Alzheimer’s patients had experienced severe emotional stress during the two years preceding their diagnosis.

Stress as a Factor in Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome

As noted in a recent article by Chris Kresser, stress can also be a factor in polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a condition caused by elevated androgens, i.e. male sex hormones, which can affect a woman’s menstrual cycles, fertility, weight, and more.

This may be especially true if you:

  • Undereat and overtrain to improve your physique
  • Do not have cystic ovaries
  • Your weight is normal or below normal and you do not struggle with insulin resistance

The article goes into far greater detail on the hormonal cascade that ultimately can lead to PCOS, but in summary, stress triggers your body to produce a number of hormones, starting with adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which stimulates your adrenal glands to produce stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.

ACTH also triggers the production of adrenal androgen hormones, including androstenedione, which is one of the two primary androgenic hormones causing PCOS symptoms in women.

Chronic Stress Can Elevate a Woman’s Male Sex Hormones

It has been my clinical experience that insulin resistance plays a major role in PCOS, and that restriction of nonfiber carb to less than 50 grams per day can dramatically help. Nevertheless, stress also has an important role.

As noted in the featured article:

“[W]omen who are under chronic stress not only have more opportunities for elevated ACTH and thus elevated androgens, but their hormones may also start to react more severely to stressful situations.

Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of women whose PCOS is caused by a poor diet, inadequate exercise, too many refined carbohydrates and sugars, and a generally unhealthy lifestyle.

But if you’re breaking your back trying to follow the perfect low-carb Paleo diet, going to CrossFit five to six days per week, and finding yourself gaining weight, losing your menstrual function, growing hair in weird places, developing adult acne …

[O]r simply feeling like a truck hit you every morning you wake up, it may be chronic stress causing your physical symptoms and hormonal imbalances.”

Why Stress Packs on Pounds

Weight gain and/or difficulty losing weight in general is a common problem associated with stress. What’s worse, stress-induced weight gain typically involves an increase in belly fat, which is the most dangerous fat for your body to accumulate as it increases your risk for cardiovascular disease.

Stress alters the way fat is deposited because of the specific hormones and other chemicals your body produces when you’re stressed. For example, recent research 7 shows that chronic stress stimulates your body to produce betatrophin — a protein that blocks an enzyme that breaks down body fat.

As reported by the Epoch Times:

” … [M]ouse models experiencing metabolic stress produced significantly more betatrophin, and their normal fat-burning processes slowed down markedly.

Such observations are significant because they shed new light on the biological mechanisms linking stress, betatrophin, and fat metabolism … The results provide experimental evidence that stress makes it harder to break down body fat.”

Developing Resilience May Lessen the Impact of Stress

Clearly, stress is an inescapable part of life — but it’s important to understand that it is how you deal with it that will determine whether it will translate into health problems later on. As noted in a recent article about stress in The New York Times, the stress reaction should dissipate as quickly as possible after the perceived danger has passed.

The scientific term for this is resilience — “the ability of your body to rapidly return to normal, both physically and emotionally, after a stressful event.” Some people are naturally more resilient than others, and researchers have long pondered the reasons why.

One speculation is that people who are more resilient have learned to listen to their body. In one experiment, elite adventure athletes and Special Forces soldiers were placed in a brain scanning machine while wearing a face mask that made it difficult to breathe once the researcher pressed a button.

What they discovered was that these people were able to closely monitor the signals from their body indicating rising panic, and suppress their physical response. Quite simply, they were acutely aware of their biological stress response, but didn’t overreact.

The same test was later administered on “normal” people, who had first completed a questionnaire to gauge their self-perceived resilience. Those whose scores suggested high resilience had brain activity very similar to the former group — the soldiers and elite athletes.

Those with low resilience scores on the other hand, reacted in the converse way.

As reported by The New York Times:

“As their face masks threatened to close, they displayed surprisingly little activity in those portions of the brain that monitor signals from the body. And then, when breathing did grow difficult, they showed high activation in parts of the brain that increase physiological arousal.

In effect, they paid little attention to what was happening inside their bodies as they waited for breathing to become difficult — and then overreacted when the threat occurred.

Such brain responses would undermine resilience, the scientists concluded, by making it more difficult for the body to return to a calm state … Improving internal communications with our bodies may be as simple as spending a few minutes each day in focused breathing, Dr. Haase said.

Quietly pay attention to inhaling and exhaling without otherwise reacting, she said. Over time, this exercise should ‘teach you to have a change in breathing when anxious but be less attached to that reaction,’ Dr. Haase said, ‘which may help to improve your reaction in a stressful situation.'”

Breath Work May Reduce Stress and Help You Develop Greater Resilience 

There are many breathing techniques out there — virtually all of which can help you get in touch with your body and soothe your mind. One of my personal favorites is the 4-7-8 breathing exercise taught by Dr. Andrew Weil, who recommends using it “whenever anything upsetting happens — before you react,” and “whenever you are aware of internal tension.” I learned it several years ago, when I attended one of his presentations at Expo West in California.

The key to this exercise is to remember the numbers 4, 7 and 8. It’s not important to focus on how much time you spend in each phase of the breathing activity, but rather that you get the ratio correct.

You can do this exercise as frequently as you want throughout the day, but it’s recommended you don’t do more than four full breaths during the first month or so of practice. Later you may work your way up to eight full breath cycles at a time. If you commit to it, I believe you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how quickly and easily it can centre and relax you.

Here’s how it’s done:

  • Sit up straight and place the tip of your tongue up against the back of your front teeth. Keep it there through the entire breathing process
  • Breathe in silently through your nose to the count of 4
  • Hold your breath to the count of 7
  • Exhale through your mouth to the count of 8, making an audible “whoosh” sound. That completes one full breath
  • Repeat the cycle another three times, for a total of 4 breaths (after the first month, you can work your way up to a total of 8 breaths per session)

Exercises to Counteract Breathing-Induced Stress

Besides making you more aware of your physical or internal state, breathing exercises can also help counteract breathing-induced stress. If you’re chronically stressed, and have poor posture to boot, you’re likely apt to breathe high in your chest, and this kind of breathing can actually trigger the stress response, or keep you locked in it.

As noted in a related CNN Health article:

“When you feel tense and anxious, the sympathetic fight-or-flight aspect of your nervous system turns on, quickening your breathing and increasing your heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormone production.

Uncontrolled, rapid, chest-oriented respiration feeds your fight-or-flight response and can actually initiate your sympathetic nervous system — even if no other stress factors are present — locking you in a state of breathing-induced stress.”

In this article, Dana Santas, a yoga trainer for a number of different athletic teams, offers the following two breathing exercises:

  1. Turn sighs of frustration into exhales of relief. “[W]hen you find yourself sighing in frustration, take the cue from your autonomic nervous system to turn those sighs into exhales of relief. It’s a simple way to tap your parasympathetic nervous system and avoid boiling over.”

For this exercise, inhale through your nose for a count of 5, and exhale as if you’re sighing with relief, out of your mouth, for a count of 7 (or longer). Repeat for at least 90 seconds.

  1. Breathe away tension. Stress-induced breathing reduces the function of your diaphragm and reinforces poor posture, which in turn can lead to pain, loss of mobility and migraines. Proper breathing can help restore the function of your diaphragm, improve posture, and reduce pain.

For this exercise, lie on your back or sit in a chair. Relax your shoulders and place your hands on the lower part of your ribs. As you breathe in, feel your ribs expanding outward, moving your hands further away from each other. When exhaling, engage and squeeze your core muscles to completely empty your lungs. Pause there for a moment before your next inhale.

Conquer Your Stress with Energy Psychology

Besides breathing exercises, there are many other helpful stress management tools. Another favorite is the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). It’s an energy psychology tool that can help reprogram your body’s reactions to everyday stress, thereby reducing your chances of developing adverse health effects.

It’s similar to acupuncture, which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians. EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations. This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist.

By doing so, you reprogram the way your body responds to emotional stressors. Since these stressors are usually connected to physical problems, many people’s diseases and other symptoms can improve or disappear as well.

For a demonstration, please see the video above, featuring EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman. For serious or deep-seated emotional problems, I recommend seeing an experienced EFT therapist, as there is a significant art to the process that requires a high level of sophistication if serious problems are to be successfully treated.

Other Stress Management Techniques

Stress is so widespread as to be “pandemic” in today’s modern world, but suffering ill effects from stress is not an inevitable fact. A lot depends on how you respond to these day-to-day stresses. And as you learn how to effectively decrease your stress level, your health will improve as well.

There are many different stress reduction techniques. The key is to find out what works best for you, and stick to a daily stress-reduction program.

One key strategy is to make sure you get adequate sleep, as sleep deprivation dramatically impairs your body’s ability to handle stress and is yet another risk factor for heart attack. Besides that, other stress management approaches include the following:

Regular physical activity Meditation: Taking even 10 minutes to sit quietly, such as during work breaks, can help decrease your feelings of stress and anxiety
Mindfulness training Yoga: Health benefits from regular yoga practice have been shown to decrease stress, improve sleep and immune function, and reduce food cravings, among other things
Social connectedness Laughter and levity
Spend time in nature Music
Schedule time to have fun Aromatherapy

Stress: It Should Never Be Ignored!

Your stress level is a major player in your overall health, impacting your risk of chronic health conditions like heart disease, depression and obesity.

But unlike other more obvious risk factors, like over-indulging in junk food or not exercising, stress is more insidious, subtly sneaking up on you over time, increasing your risk of health problems even as you don’t noticeably feel sick or realize that your late-night work habits and financial worries are slowly zapping away your vitality.

That said, you may very well feel stressed, and if you do, this is a warning sign that should not be ignored.

People Who Believe Their Health Is Affected by Stress Are Twice as Likely to Have a Heart Attack

In a recent study of stressed individuals, those who said that their health was “extremely” affected by stress had more than twice the risk of having or dying from a heart attack, compared to those who believed stress had no impact on their health.

This could mean that these individuals were highly in tune with their bodies, and correctly perceived that stress was wearing them down. On the other hand, it could also be an example of the mind-body connection, in that if you believe stress is harming your health, it increases the likelihood that it will.

Either way, this is a significant increase in heart attack risk, so if you currently feel stressed to the point that you believe it is affecting your health, it’s time to take stress relief very seriously.

Severe Stress Can Raise Your Heart Attack Risk by 21 Times

Losing a significant person in your life raises your risk of having a heart attack the next day by 21 times, and in the following week by 6 times.2 The risk of heart attacks begins to decline after about a month, perhaps as levels of stress hormones begin to level out.

The study did not get into the causes of the abrupt increase in risk of cardiovascular events like a heart attack, but it’s likely related to the flood of stress hormones your body is exposed to following extreme stress.

For instance, adrenaline increases your blood pressure and your heart rate, and it’s been suggested it may lead to narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to your heart, or even bind directly to heart cells allowing large amounts of calcium to enter and render the cells temporarily unable to function properly.

Interestingly, while your risk of heart attack increases following severe stress, so does your risk of what’s known as stress cardiomyopathy — or “broken heart syndrome” — which is basically a “temporary” heart attack that occurs due to stress.

This stress and the subsequent release of stress hormones are thought to “stun” or “shock” the heart, leading to sudden heart muscle weakness. This condition can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention, however it is often a temporary condition that leaves no permanent damage.

When your body is under the stress response, whether acute or chronic, your cortisol and insulin levels rise. These two hormones tend to track each other, so when your cortisol is consistently elevated under a chronic low-level stress response, you may experience difficulty losing weight or building muscle. Additionally, if your cortisol is chronically elevated, you’ll tend to gain weight around your midsection, which is a major contributing factor to developing diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndrome.

Ignoring Your Stress Can Devastate Your Health

We all experience stress sometimes, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some stress, like exercise, is beneficial. Likewise, the stress response can work to your advantage in some cases to give you a burst of energy and focus when you’re facing a challenge, be it warding off an attacker or completing an assignment with a tight deadline.

Stress turns ugly when it is either extremely severe, such as facing combat or another traumatic scenario, or long-term. It is the latter that poses a risk to many Americans, who live in a chronically elevated state of stress and anxiety. Over time, chronic stress may impair your immune system and cause a number of detrimental events in your body, including:

Decreased nutrient absorption Elevated cholesterol Increased food sensitivity
Decreased oxygenation to your gut Elevated triglycerides Heartburn
As much as four times less blood flow to your digestive system, which leads to decreased metabolism Decreased gut flora populations Decreased enzymatic output in your gut – as much as 20,000-fold!

Further, when your body remains in a stress-induced ‘fight-or-flight’ mode for too long, one of the most common consequences of this scenario is that your adrenal glands, faced with excessive stress and burden, become overworked and fatigued. This can lead to a number of related health conditions, including fatigue, autoimmune disorders, skin problems and more. Stress has also been linked to cancer by down-regulating immunosurveillance, potentially triggering the growth of tumours, and even activating multidrug resistance genes within cancer cells. In fact, stress, and by proxy your emotional health, is a leading factor in virtually any disease or illness you can think of.

Are You Tending to Your Emotional Health?

Keeping your stress levels under control has to be an ongoing commitment, like preparing healthy meals and exercising. Unfortunately, many fall into a vicious trap where their strategies for dealing with stress center on unhealthy activities, like watching TV, drinking alcohol, or eating junk foods; many also simply fail to address their emotional health at all, a serious mistake for your well-being and physical health.

What you do for stress relief is a personal choice, as your stress management techniques must appeal to you and, more importantly, work for you. If a round of kickboxing helps you get out your frustration, then do it. If meditation is more your speed, that’s fine too. Even having a good cry now and then may be beneficial, as tears that are shed due to an emotional response, such as sadness or extreme happiness, contain a high concentration of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) — a chemical linked to stress.

One theory of why you cry when you’re sad is that it helps your body release some of these excess stress chemicals, thereby helping you feel more calm and relaxed. Energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can be very effective as well by helping you to actually reprogram your body’s reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life. This is important as, generally speaking, a stressor becomes a problem when:

  • Your response to it is negative
  • Your feelings and emotions are inappropriate for the circumstances
  • Your response lasts an excessively long time
  • You’re feeling continuously overwhelmed, overpowered or overworked

When you use EFT, simple tapping with the fingertips is used to input kinetic energy onto specific meridians on your head and chest while you think about your specific problem — whether it is a traumatic event, an addiction, pain, etc. — and voice positive affirmations. This combination of tapping the energy meridians and voicing positive affirmation works to clear the “short-circuit” — the emotional block — from your body’s bioenergy system, thus restoring your mind and body’s balance, which is essential for optimal health and the healing of chronic stress.

For more information on EFT see Therapies page of this website

The articles above are written by Dr. Mercola –