How Stress Is Ruining Your Health Head To Toe
In the previous two blogs on stress we spoke about the roles that stress plays in your ability to lose or gain body fat and the havoc that stress can have on your hormones.
If you haven’t already read those two previous posts, go back and do so to get a context and understanding of stress and stress physiology that we will build on today.
Today we are going to switch gears and discuss how chronic stress can negatively impact your mood and emotions, bone health and immune system
Mood, Emotions and Cognitive Function
Everyone has gotten through a stressful situation and felt entirely drained and worn out even though they haven’t exerted themselves physically.
This exhaustion is due to the metabolizing of stress hormones that cause a tranquilizing effect designed to help us relax and recover from the stressor.
An important job for the stress hormone cortisol is to actually make you more impulsive to encourage quick decision making in times of stress and perceived life or death.
When you are around someone who is stressed out and see them snap at something seemingly harmless, this is cortisol’s impulse response in action.
Now imagine someone who stressed out like that all the time, they would be irritable and in a negative mindset all the time leading to a bad mood. Imagine the guy in traffic yelling and squeezing the driving wheel.
When someone is irritable and in a bad mood mood all the time because of stress, they will likely also feel extreme fatigue and lack energy because of the tranquilizing effects of metabolizing too great a volume of stress hormones.
This lack of energy and constant feeling of being down is a slippery slope that can lead to depressive thought and actions.
The constant fight or flight stressed state looks extremely similar to what someone who is dealing with anxiety would experience: Increased pulse and blood pressure, sweating, excessive fidgeting, racing thoughts, nausea and digestive problems, poor impulse control.
If someone has pre existing anxiety there is no doubt that chronic stress will make it much worse, and it seems logical that chronic stress can be a factor in developing an anxiety disorder.
Stress has an impact on your overall cognitive functioning and how well your brain works. The continuous presence of stress hormones can alter the structure and function of your nervous system.
Stress actually decreases the function of two parts of the brain named the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.
The hippocampus is responsible for the development and storing away of our long term memories while the prefrontal cortex is what helps us with delaying gratification for long term goals, solve problems and pay attention.
With these parts of our brain negatively impacted by stress it should come as no surprise that someone who is chronically stressed would have a hard time recalling things, concentrating, solving problems or delay gratification for a long term goal they have.
Bones, Joints and Ligaments
Believe it or not your bones are in a constant state of breakdown and remodeling, there are several different types of cells that help to build new bones and break down old unhealthy bone, and build new stronger healthier bone.
The bone builders are named osteoblasts, and the bone deconstructors are named osteoclasts. The rate at which someone’s bones are broken down and rebuilt depends on multiple factors including nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress management.
We all know that there is calcium in our bones, but there is a protein matrix that helps to keep the bones together while giving them a certain amount of flexibility.
The main protein in our bones is named collagen and is also a large part of the ligaments and tendons that support our skeletal frame.
This collagen bone matrix is combined with calcium, magnesium and phosphate to create a very strong and flexible bone.
Collagen is comprised of two important amino acids in the form of glycine and proline, which is found in not just bones but ligaments and tendons as well.
We require collagen to have healthy joints, ligaments and connective tissue the body will always prioritize the stress response above all else, because stress is perceived as life or death.
The stress hormone cortisol is catabolic meaning it causes the breakdown of tissues and cells in the body to support the stress response.
With stress prioritized over collagen, it will be sacrificed and broken down for the amino acids and made into glucose (blood sugar) through a process known as gluconeogenesis.
Excessively elevated cortisol increases collagen breakdown and inhibits osteoblast formation which prevents bone rebuilding, leading to reduced bone density.
As long as chronic stress is present collagen and bone rebuilding will not be able to happen in volume needed to repair bones and connective tissue.
The immune system is complex system of cells, organs and tissues that protect the body from bacteria, viruses and micro-organisms that try to invade and cause sickness and disease.
As much as 80% of your immune system resides in your digestive tract which makes sense when you realize most of these bacteria and viruses and pathogens enter through your mouth, and will be killed by the acidic environment in your stomach.
There has long been a connection between stress and a weakened immune system.
Stress, but specifically cortisol has an immunosuppressive effect.
This means that your immune system is instructed to lower the defenses while cortisol runs its course in the body and helps to deal with a potential stressor.
The short bouts of suppressed immune function don’t present a problem, but when you constantly have high cortisol it presents a problem.
Constantly elevated cortisol is suppressing the immune system to the point of leaving you more vulnerable to sickness and disease.
Our immune system is our number one line of defense against foreign invaders to the body. With your first line of defense significantly reduced your ability to fight off infections and bacteria will leave you more likely to get get sick.
How To Combat Stress
Over the last three blogs we have spoken about a number of ways that stress can damage your health, hormones and make you gain body fat.
However I wouldn’t want to leave you hanging without some actions steps you can take today to reduce your stress levels.
These may not all be the right strategy for you, so pick what works and don’t worry about the rest.
Some ways to reduce the amount of avoidable stresses are:
Avoid people who stress you out.
Don’t engage in pointless arguments: Even when you win an argument nobody really wins.
Make a to do list of 3-5 important tasks for the following day.
Learn to say no: Be aware of your limits and don’t take on more than you can handle. Don't sacrifice your mental well being to please others.
Take responsibility for situations: Realize you can’t change the past, and dwelling on events you can’t change keeps you from living in the present.
The above ways are things you can do to avoid certain sources of stress but there certain kinds of stress you won’t be able to avoid and the techniques that we cover next will be ways to broadly reduce stress.
Meditation: The free app headspace or calm are awesome!
Write down 3 things you are grateful for in the morning
Change how you frame a situation: If you can change how you view a situation you take away its ability to stress you out.
View Every Experience As Something You Can Learn From: Not all situations are going to be roses and lollipops, but you can always find something to learn from each situation and view it as an opportunity to expand and make better future decisions.
Engage in play: play catch with a baseball, foot or go play some basketball. Take a break from being so serious and do something for yourself that you have no attachment to the outcome of.
Schedule social events with those you love
Take Responsibility: When you take the part of a victim in every situation you will feel as though everything happens to you without your say in it. Start taking responsibility for the things that happen in your life and you will stop feeling like a victim, and more empowered.
Take a 20 minute walk: Get out into nature if possible or walk in a park
Practice deep breathing: Close your eyes and focus on the feeling of breath enter and leaving your body. Start with three minutes and work your way up to 5-10 minutes.
Develop a morning routine: Many times have morning routine helps to take a lot of the stress out of the morning rush. Make sure you include something you enjoy maybe listening to a podcast or reading the paper for 15 minutes
Daily Review: Use a journal and write down all your thoughts and reflections from the day. Make sure to cover one thing you did well and one thing you would like to do better in the future.
Laugh More: Watch a funny movie or some stand up comedy. Even better round up some friends and go see local stand up comedy in your town. You get to spend a fun night with people you care about and laugh during it as well.
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These habits are based on getting you to your goal in a sustainable fashion that can be maintained, while keeping you accountable along the way.