Stress can be Stressful
Stress – everyone knows what it is and everyone wishes they had less of it. The terms “stressed out”, “overstressed”, “stressed to the max” and “stressbuster” have become so common place in our language that everyone knows what we are referring to when we use them. The concept of stress is so widely accepted as part of our fast-paced modern day life that no one blinks an eye when we talk about it, but so little is known about the long term health effects of continual exposure to stress.
Up until twenty years ago, scientists would acknowledge that physical stress could be harmful to the body. However, it is only within the last ten to fifteen years that scientists have begun to recognize and study the profound effects of psychological stress on health.
In that time, scientists and researchers have been able to demonstrate the connection between psychological stress and the immune system and map out the mechanisms by which they interact. It is now clear that severe or sustained stress can weaken the immune system, increase blood pressure, increase fat deposition around the waist, increase the rate at which we age and damage our brain cells that have to do with memory. It has been implicated in diseases as far ranging as diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, fibromyalgia, anxiety and depression among others.
Research done over the last fifteen years, reveals that 43% of all adults suffer significant adverse effects from stress exposure and 75% to 90% of all visits to primary care physicians are related in some way to the negative effects due to stress. It is estimated that on an average workday, approximately one million workers are absent from their jobs due to stress-related complaints. The demand for stress management programs, services and products has risen dramatically in the last ten to fifteen years and is now estimated to exceed eleven billion dollars annually.
Some stress in small to moderate amounts can be benign, even helpful. For instance, think about studying for a test, preparing to address a group or slamming on the brakes to avoid a car accident. All of these are stressful events which require the body to go through a series of adaptive changes involving the endocrine system, the immune system, the cardiovascular system and the nervous system, particularly the brain.
Adrenaline and cortisol, both stress hormones produced by the adrenal glands pour into the body, accompanied by increases in blood pressure, heart rate and respiration; oxygen flows to the muscles preparing the body to employ “the fight or flight” mechanism. While this may have been life saving for our ancestors who were suddenly faced with a the threat of being eaten by a lion, this response when sustained in today’s stress saturated world creates long term health consequences, often leading to serious dysfunction or disease.
A Carnegie Mellon University research project indicated that volunteers who were inoculated with a cold virus who reported life stresses that continued for more than one month (ie. unemployment or family health problems) were more likely to get colds than those who sustained stress lasting less than a month. The longer the stress endured, the greater the risk of illness.
Each person’s response to stress is different. It is based partly on genetics, environment, socio-economic status and lifestyle. Factors that can make your response to stress worse include: staying late at work, eating diets rich in processed, simple carbohydrates, eating fatty foods, drinking excessively, inadequate sleep, smoking, lack of exercise, isolation from others and excessive competition.
During times where stress can be particularly high, it is even more important to be mindful of the factors that can make our responses worse. It’s important to take time out, to breathe, and to find balance in your life to function at your best and stay healthy.
More tips on how you can support your adrenals from stress.