Stress and health are closely intertwined. Three-fourths of all doctor visits are related to stress. Researchers now estimate that stress factors and stress related illnesses account for upwards of 90% of health problems. Being in the stress response loop requires a great deal of energy. Most of us have enough energy reserves to meet short-term demands. When stress is prolonged, or chronic, which is often the case in our modern world; we use up our reserves and feel exhausted. The energy that is needed for health and cell repair is redirected to deal with stress. This takes a huge toll on our health and well-being. When this happens your levels of cortisol, known as the stress hormone, can be raised for prolonged periods of time. This is when stress becomes dangerous. The adrenal glands become exhausted under the constant demand to pump out more adrenaline and cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels are responsible for many of the health problems related to stress and illness.
One of the functions of the cortisol hormone is to reduce inflammation, an initial part of the healing process. Inhibiting this process allows the tissues to continue receiving their full blood supply. This, and the other effects of cortisol, only becomes a problem when prolonged stress requires the body to sacrifice its balance and maintain high cortisol levels. Healing is not a priority when in the fight-or-flight response. The body reduces inflammation by suppressing the immune system. Even a twenty minute episode of stress has been shown to reduce natural killer cell activity, our primary defense system, for up to three days.
When the adrenal glands release stress hormones, they are not releasing the DHEA hormone responsible for cell repair. The adrenals are making one of these hormones or the other at any given moment. When DHEA hormone levels are low, the body does not have the biological resources to repair itself. The body can’t function properly and is more vulnerable to disease. DHEA also protects us from stress and the effects of cortisol. It slows aging, strengthens the immune system and improves mood.
If you are concerned about being healthy, you need to create conditions that favor the production of the DHEA hormone. It takes about thirty minutes after a stressful event for the body to break down cortisol molecules. They are reassembled into the necessary building blocks for DHEA. If you keep thinking stressful thoughts, these thoughts trigger the stress response, not an opportunity for healing and repair.
New research shows that chronic stress can actually cause our cells to age faster. Every cell contains a tiny clock called a telomere, which shortens each time the cell divides. Short telomeres are linked to a range of human diseases, including HIV, osteoporosis, heart disease and aging. Previous studies show that an enzyme within the cell, called telomerase, keeps immune cells young by preserving their telomere length and ability to continue dividing. UCLA scientists have found that the stress hormone cortisol suppresses the immune cells’ ability to activate their telomerase. This may explain why the cells of persons under chronic stress have shorter telomeres. The study reveals how stress makes people more susceptible to illness.
Another major negative effect of cortisol is that it inhibits collagen formation. Collagen is a molecule that makes connective tissue. It’s vital for structural support and is found in muscles, tendons and joints, as well as throughout the entire body. Stress studies done on rats show that collagen loss in the skin was ten times greater than in any other tissue. Remember that during stress the body prioritizes what is important for fight or flight. Wrinkle-free, young looking skin is not one of those priorities.
Long-term exposure to elevated cortisol levels damages and reduces the number of cells in the hippocampus, the brain’s primary memory center. This damage results in memory loss and impaired learning. A study, published in the leading Journal of Neuroscience, found that high levels of the stress hormone in aged mice made them less able to remember how to navigate a maze.
According to the Franklin Institute, elevated cortisol levels can impact the formation of new memories and retrieval of old ones. High cortisol levels obstruct normal glucose delivery to the brain, the primary source of energy for all cells. The institute also notes that in addition to interfering with the brain’s energy supply, cortisol also impacts neurotransmitters. These chemicals facilitate communication between brain cells.
Present in all vertebrate brains, the blood-brain barrier helps to shield neurons from some poisons, viruses, and other toxins in the bloodstream – as well as from unpredictable fluctuations in normal blood chemistry. Stress can dramatically increase the ability of chemicals to pass through the blood-brain barrier.
It’s quite clear that chronic stress is related to depression. A common feature of depression is an excess release of cortisol into the blood. Some neuroscientists and psychiatrists are now suggesting that the major changes in serotonin and other neurotransmitters seen in depression are not the cause of depression, but secondary to changes in the stress response.
Chronic stress can contribute to several harmful physiological events. When body tissues are exposed to high levels of cortisol for extended periods of time, some cellular and tissue alterations may occur. High levels of cortisol cause fat stores and excess circulating fat to be relocated and deposited deep in the abdomen, which left unchecked can develop into or enhance obesity. In addition, hypertension (high blood pressure), hyperlipidemia (elevated lipids), and hyperglycemia (elevated glucose) have been linked to elevated cortisol levels Individuals with a high waist-to-hip ratio (which identifies visceral obesity) are at a greater risk for developing cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes mellitus, and cerebrovascular disease. Because it can affect your blood pressure as well as affect the fats in the blood, chronic stress can definitely make it more likely for you to have heart attacks and strokes.
The chronic release of cortisol combined with altered tissue production is linked to the development of abdominal obesity in both men and women. Cortisol is associated to overeating, craving high caloric fatty and sugary foods, and relocating fat from the circulation and storage depots to the deep internal abdominal area. Blood pressure rises. Blood sugar levels increase as insulin is blocked from doing its job leading to unhealthy fat building up in the abdomen.
Other stress related health problems include gastro-intestinal disorders, irritable bowel syndrome sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression and recurring headaches. Some people develop back pain and other general aches and pains. Others lose interest in sex or have other sexual problems. Stress can slow recovery from surgery or illness, compromise your immune system, inhibit bone formation and lower blood flow to the heart.
The good news is that you can stop the negative effects of stress by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which promotes the relaxation response and turns off the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is responsible for the stress response. Massage is a great way to activate the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system allowing your body to heal from the negative effects of stress, which is believed to cause 95% of all disease and illness.