I’d be willing to bet that most of us are feeling a good deal of stress these days. I know that I am. “Normal life” was hectic enough, then 2020 came and layered on a whole new set of worries with the COVID pandemic, juggling work and school from home, increased economic uncertainties, and even a Presidential election that has been bitterly contentious no matter who you support.
Certainly, at times, stress can be good for you. There is what is referred to as “eustress”, which is stress that comes from fun, excitement and the adrenaline rush of an anticipated interaction or event that you enjoy.
There is also acute stress, which may not be as enjoyable as eustress but does have the benefit of often leading to laser focused concentration for a short period of time (think back to when you were taking a test in school) or extra adrenaline kicking in for a surge of energy when it is needed. These kinds of stress reactions are welcome and needed from time to time.
On the other hand, chronic stress, the kind that seems to be never-ending, the kind of headache producing, blood pressure elevating stress that too many of us are feeling on an everyday basis right now, can wear you down physically and mentally, and lead to serious health consequences over time.
To illustrate, imagine a marble rolling around slowly in a glass container. Watching this can help you focus and concentrate, and perhaps even make you feel relaxed to a certain extent.
But take the same marble in the same container, when shaken violently it will make an annoying and eventually frustrating rattling noise as the marble repeatedly hits the glass. And if this battering becomes forceful enough, the glass is bound to crack. Or worse, shatter.
This is how stress can work in your body.
A Hormonal Super Storm
We all like to believe that chronic stress is just a part of life and rather harmless, but it has been shown to usher in hormonal imbalances and related biological misfires that can wreak havoc on our health over time.
Chronic stress has been linked with a wide range of long-term health issues including serious cardiovascular damage threat, cognitive decline, blood sugar imbalances, poor digestion and healthy immune function impairment.
And ironically, other conditions associated with stress—such as weight gain and poor sleep—are themselves unfortunately sources of even more stress.
And it’s all due to a cascade of biological functions that are triggered when the body finds itself in a state of stress.
You see, your body has a very sophisticated stress response system known as the HPA axis, which consists of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. After the hypothalamus rings the stress alarm with epinephrine, sending heart rate and blood pressure higher, it then releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). This perfectly timed hormone then signals the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which then signals the adrenal glands that cortisol is needed.
It is cortisol that is both our friend and our enemy.
While cortisol creates needed biological changes in the face of a threat, elevated levels over time are where we begin to encounter the real dangers of chronic stress.
Stress and Poor Sleep
Chronic stress can essentially contribute to a prolonged state of hyperarousal—a state in which hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol remain elevated—making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
According to the CDC, 1 in 3 Americans aren’t getting the recommended 7-9 hours of shuteye, and it’s contributing to a host of other health concerns. Not the least of which are mood swings and weight gain.
When we are feeling tired and unable to mentally function well, we have a tendency to increase our intake of caffeine, sugar and unhealthy fats for that immediate energy rush. Couple this with increased levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin and decreased levels of the “I’m full” hormone, leptin, and you find yourself at the start of a downward spiral.
Stress and Weight Gain—It’s About Much More Than Emotional Eating
Stress contributes to weight gain three ways; a triple whammy that results in a vicious cycle.
Not only is an increased appetite often a hallmark of stress as we seek to comfort and distract ourselves, heightened cortisol and insulin levels spell big trouble for the hormonal balance needed for healthy metabolism.
That’s because cortisol and insulin compete for absorption and—as smart biology would have it—cortisol, the hormone responding to stress, usually wins, leaving blood sugar in an elevated state that triggers hunger. This is why this vicious cycle is so hard to break.
When your body is in a state of chronic stress, your cortisol levels never get low enough for insulin to be efficiently used, which means feelings of hunger persist.
Worse still is that these chronically elevated levels of cortisol also contribute to reduced nutrient uptake and conservation of fat, making it even harder to lose weight no matter how much you try.
In one study, Ohio State University researchers found that, on average, women who reported being stressed within a 24 hour period had imbalanced cortisol and/or insulin levels and burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women. This equals an 11-pound weight gain in one year!
Chronic Stress Threatens Our Health in a Variety of Other Ways as Well
The heightened state of alertness caused by chronic stress causes an inflammatory response that manifests in myriad ways. We’ve reviewed many of the complications of chronic inflammation and how it can impact your immune system, but let’s discuss how stress and cortisol play a role.
Cortisol can also cause things to go haywire when it comes to the body’s immune response, another adverse ramification of the hormonal “traffic jam” caused by elevated levels of cortisol. In these cases, your immune system response becomes compromised because cortisol binds to the glucocorticoid receptors found on many immune cells, disrupting the NF-kB protein complex, a signaling pathway that regulates the activity of immune cells.
In fact, stress response can interfere with immune function in multiple ways, and, vary from person to person depending on your typical state of hormonal balance.
While a depressed immune response from stress is certainly a concern due to the disruption of your body’s ability to fight antigens, an overactive immune response can be just as concerning.
While certainly not as serious as damage to our cardiovascular health or a compromised immune system response, chronic stress can also impact our health in other very noticeable ways including hair loss and premature graying, increased sensitivity to pain in the head, neck and back, ringing in the ears and rashes and other skin conditions.
5 Ways I Reduce the Feelings of Stress
Each of us needs to find ways to manage and relieve stress that works for us individually. Here are 5 stress reducers that work for me:
- Improve night time pre-sleep routine
To make sure you are getting restful shut-eye - power down your electronics at least 90 minutes before going to bed, avoid alcohol and caffeine, and keep your bedroom cool – 68 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to help the body’s core temperature dip into the zone that ushers in deep, slow-wave zzzzz. I have also found that taking a dose of CBD oil before bedtime helps me relax and get more restful sleep.
- Up the Ante on Antioxidants
Antioxidants such as astaxanthin combat damaging UV rays and environmental toxins, while protecting against free radical damage that can cause harmful inflammation. The healthier you are, the better equipped you are to cope with stress. I make sure to get research-based dosages of my favorite antioxidants daily, including turmeric, astaxanthin, resveratrol and berberine.
Meditation is one of the best ways to moderate the way your body responds to stress both physically and mentally, reducing blood pressure and increasing oxygenation of cells. I take a few minutes to meditate each morning to clear my mind to get ready to tackle the challenges of the day. But if meditation isn’t for you, even doing some deep breathing can help with relaxation while sweeping nutrients into your cells to activate cell rejuvenating autophagy.
- Regular Exercise
Getting a sweat on can improve your cardiovascular health, keep your muscles strong, burn fat and boost immunity. It also can eliminate harmful toxins, which helps your body relax and rejuvenate. I do a mix of strength and conditioning training at least 4-5 times each week.
- Taking a bath
Taking time in the evening for a warm bath relaxes the mind and the body, reducing stress and inducing sleep. There is also evidence that because calorie burn temporarily increases when the body is exposed to heat, a bath can confer some of the same benefits as exercise. I often add a cup or two of Epsom salts to my bath to help with body-wide detoxification.
While nothing can make stress magically disappear, if you have been dealing with chronic stress recently, I believe that trying these “stress busters” will help you feel calmer, more relaxed and better able to cope with the stress.