Stress is ubiquitous. Everyone experiences it, almost anything in the environment can cause it (even the internal mental environment), and our bodies have myriad ways of dealing with it. When our bodies are under physical duress or perceived mental distress, our bodies undergo a physiological stress response. Whether the demand is stemming from sitting in an uncomfortable chair in an office all day, worrying about how the next bill is going to be paid, or dwelling about negative events that happened during the day, the response of the body is the same.
So what happens when the body undergoes stress? Hormones, including cortisol and epinephrine, are produced by the adrenal glands. Those hormones are fed into the bloodstream, their purpose being to prepare the body to fight perceived dangers by increasing heartrate and blood pressure and making more energy available for the body to use as fuel.
When physical action is necessary to escape danger, outrunning a large predator for example, that response cascade is exactly what we would have used to escape and save ourselves. Unfortunately, the modern world does not offer much of an outlet for those physiological changes. Thus, with little or no opportunity to vent our stress physically, the body turns the response inward and reduces the effectiveness of our organ systems. That results in a strain on our organisms and causes the symptoms of stress to manifest.
Those symptoms? Fatigue (throughout the day and compounded by a difficulty falling asleep), anxiety, insomnia, perceived body pains or aches, food cravings, weight gain, hair loss, inability to focus, extreme tiredness after exercise, decreased libido, and decreased immune function. That isn’t even including the potential increased risk of disease. Chronic stress has been shown to increase the risk of ulcers, heart disease, and even cancer.
There is also a key link between irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and stress. The underlying chronic stress caused by the IBS can make it worse which can then further compound the already existing digestive issues even more. It’s a vicious cycle which can resemble the “chicken and egg” metaphor. One makes the other worse which, in turn, makes the first worse. Stress causes hormones to be released leading to decreased levels of good gut bacteria and inhibits digestion further, causing more stress.
The key to overcoming stress is to recognize its source, understand the physiological response your body is having to it, and pivoting your thoughts and actions to help mitigate it. Because stress can be so dangerous and debilitating, it is important for every one of us to learn how to deal with it effectively as it occurs and, ideally, prevent or reduce its occurrence in the first place. Finding ways to deal with stress, be it through exercise, meditation, or a slew of other relief options is essential. Avoidance doesn’t solve anything. Finding stress sources and relieving them, however, does.
Dr. Seema Kanwal, ND
Balance Medical Center