It can sometimes be hard to escape the effects of stress in our everyday lives. In fact, constant stress can turn into distress when one or more systems in the body are agitated for prolonged periods of time. Statistics show that about 43% of all adults claim that stress affects certain aspects of their health. Even naturopaths support the fact that reasons why 75 to 90% of patients visit primary care doctors is because of stress-related reasons.
Stress and chronic fatigue syndrome
Since chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) seems to have no physical cause, its diagnosis is deemed somewhat controversial. But seeing patients over and over again with the same symptoms typical of CFS has convinced many practitioners that it is a real and debilitating condition. New studies on the origin of CFS conclude that those who suffer from it have an imbalance in the HPA-axis, which can affect the cortisol and DHEA hormones in the body. It appears that unusually low concentrations of cortisol first thing in the morning may be connected to a higher incidence of fatigue in those who suffer from CFS, or what naturopaths identify as adrenal fatigue or hypoadrenalism.
Stress and the link to depression
It seems that those who experience stressful situations on a regular basis are at greater risk for developing major depression. Scientists conclude that constant exposure to stressful conditions kills neurons and prevents the process of neurogenesis in the hippocampus, which is usually needed for a healthy stress response. Chronic stress also interrupts serotonin (5-HTP) neurotransmission by significantly reducing both 5-HTP neurotransmission and 5-HT1A autoreceptor sensitivity.
Stress and the connection to high blood pressure
As the body prepares its stress response, it releases adrenaline and cortisol, two hormones responsible for temporarily tightening the vasculature and increasing blood flow to the organs responsible for enforcing the “fight or flight” response. Continuous stress can cause sustained high blood pressure thereby increasing the chances of heart disease, particularly in those who also have high cholesterol levels. In addition, those who are experience stress on a regular basis are more likely fall into negative coping behaviours like smoking and overeating, which can also contribute to heart disease.
Stress and its effects on Irritable Bowel Syndrome
The enteric nervous system is sometimes called the body’s second brain. It’s part of the nervous system that has a special connection to the gastrointestinal system, which is sensitive to emotions like anger, anxiety and panic. These and other strong feelings can trigger pain and cramping symptoms in the gut. It is believed that stress and other emotions can affect the communication signals between the brain and gut and lead to symptoms of IBS.
Stress and infections
Chronic stress causes the body’s adrenal glands to continuously secrete high levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol acts as a protective mechanism by subduing the immune system and reducing inflammation by suppressing T-cells and compromising the release of histamine. If a chronic stress pattern is allowed to continue, the immune system may become suppressed and increase a patient’s chances of infection and exposure to disease.
Stress and the association with migraines
Studies show that chronic stress triggers nerve cells to create a pain-producing substance called “substance P”. Substance P is capable of dilating blood vessels and releasing allergic compounds like histamine, which can trigger inflammation, pain and migraine headaches.
The relationship between stress and PMS
In the world of hormones, cortisol and progesterone compete for common receptors, meaning cortisol can interrupt progesterone activity and clear the way for estrogen dominance when one is chronically stressed and exposed to high levels of circulating cortisol. Estrogen dominance is affiliated with typical premenstrual syndrome symptoms, like mood swings, breast tenderness, fatigue, irritability and depression. Estrogen dominance can also affect fertility and reproductive function. We know that chronic stress can impair the release of serotonin, which is thought to be a mood regulator. If serotonin levels fluctuate, PMS symptoms can flare.
The stress/diabetes connection
When the body’s under stress it releases cortisol, which in turn prompts glucose stores to be released into the blood. This creates energy to fuel the muscles for a “fight or flight” response. Stress also raises blood sugar levels and increases cortisol which causes cells to become insulin resistant. The detrimental end result is high blood sugar. Indirectly, stress also causes us to eat poorly, resulting in increased blood sugar levels and a higher chance of developing diabetes.
Stress and thyroid issues
Studies show that chronic adrenal stress compromises the functions of the hypothalamus and pituitary, which are two critical glands used in the production of thyroid hormone. Inflammatory cytokines IL-1 beta, IL-6 and TNF-alpha, released during the body’s stress response, have also been shown to lower the HPA axis and diminish levels of thyroid- stimulating hormone (TSH). TNF has also been shown to interrupt the conversion of T4 to T3, the more active thyroid hormone. Also, inflammatory cytokines released during the stress response have been shown to alter thyroid receptor site sensitivity, especially when extended. This creates a condition similar to insulin resistance as thyroid receptors become insensitive to circulating thyroid hormone despite the fact that hormone levels are normal.
Stress and developing ulcers
When the body’s under stress, its defense mechanisms divert blood away from the digestive system in favour of organs like the muscles and the heart, which are involved in deploying “fight or flight” responses. If stress is allowed to be ongoing, blood flow to the stomach lining can decrease, with the end result being damage and weakness when the sensitive gastric epithelium is exposed to the acidic pH of the stomach. A type of erosion occurs and can contribute to stress-induced gastritis.
There’s no doubt that stress brings on many debilitating conditions. You’ll be hard pressed to think of any other disease where stress doesn’t play a role. Reducing stress levels and learning to manage stress effectively is a major part of practicing preventative medicine. It won’t only help manage current health problems, but may also have long reaching benefits.
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