Feeling Stressed? Stress May be Affecting Your Body More than You Thought 

Jessica Wilhelm, BS, CN - Apr 18, 2018


We all feel stress at some point. It’s become so common-place people use it to describe a state of being. When you ask someone how they are, they might respond “I’m pretty stressed”. In many ways, feeling stressed has become a badge of honor in our society, and the normal state of being for the average person. Have you ever found yourself experiencing a lovely day and someone shames you for not feeling as stressed as they feel? “Must be nice to… (fill in the blank)”.

There was a time when people admired others for having leisure time and hoped one day to have their own. Now people admire the busyness of their peers, and it’s hard to feel like you can stop, breathe, and take a break. With all the hustle and bustle of the everyday, it’s no wonder that the life expectancy of people in the US is declining despite medical advances.

If you’re looking to relieve some of the stressors in your life, the first step is identifying what type of stress affects you specifically, and then figuring out a personalized plan to combat it.

Types of Stress

It is estimated that 75-90% of all doctor’s office visits in the US are for stress related complaints. Stress can generally be divided into several categories by intensity and duration. Acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress each have a different effect on the body and how it responds. Different types of stressors, from emotional situations to food sensitivities can negatively impact the brain, gut and hormones leaving you wondering what happened to your youth and zest for life.

Acute Stress:

Acute stress is stress that lasts for a brief period of time and is the most common type of stress people experience. Acute stress has likely occurred in the recent past, or will occur in the near future, and generally lasts from a few minutes to several hours. You can think of it as revving the engine of a car when you first turn on the ignition.

Episodic Acute Stress:

Episodic acute stress happens when people encounter acute stress frequently. They are always in a rush. It is common when people take on too much and are not organized enough to deal with the daily demands and pressures. Over time, this type of stress begins to deplete the body of important hormones, neurotransmitters and nutrients. Think of this type of stress as revving the engine of a car over and over again. Eventually, it drains the gas and begins to create wear and tear on the engine.

Chronic Stress:

Chronic stress is stress that lasts for more than a month and can have a lasting effect on overall health and wellbeing. Chronic stress relates to physical stress as a result of illness, injury, chronic pain and/or emotional stress, such as the recent loss of a loved one, relationships, fears, conflicts, anxiety, anger, and worry. Chronic stress can wear us down and make us feel “burned-out” or like the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.

Blood sugar imbalances, increased risk for high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and gastrointestinal distress such as heartburn/reflux, and inflammatory bowel diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ulcerative colitis are all associated with chronic stress. Even the balance of healthy bacteria in the gut becomes disrupted, which is crucial for healthy digestion and immune system function. More than 75% of the immune system resides in the GI tract, so it’s not a surprise that people who experience chronic stress are more likely to get sick and experience gas and bloating. You can think of chronic stress as revving a car engine constantly at very high rpms. In a short time, the gas will be gone, the oil will run dry, and the engine will break down.

How Does Stress Affect My Body?

If any of the types of stress above feel familiar to you, it could be affecting your body and the way it functions. Below we’ve listed out some ways stress affects your body, and what kinds of symptoms you may experience.

Cortisol Spikes:

The adrenal glands, located on top of each kidney are responsible for releasing hormones such as cortisol, DHEA and sex hormones that help the body control blood sugar, regulate blood pressure, respond to stressors and metabolize fat and protein. Our bodies natural rhythm of cortisol has our natural levels at their highest within 30 minutes of waking up in the morning, and then should decrease at a steady rate throughout the day, before reaching the lowest levels at night. When dealing with different types of stress, your cortisol levels can go haywire.

Acute Stress results in a brief spike in cortisol, while chronic stress can cause more consistent spikes in cortisol throughout the day. These consistent spikes can contribute to mood issues, anxiety, headaches, irritability, muscle pain, low energy and sleepless nights.

Food Sensitivities & Environmental Allergens:

Food sensitivities and environmental allergens also play an important role in brain, gut and hormonal health because they stimulate the release of histamine. Histamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter produced in the mast cells and brain that has many roles, including controlling our sleep-wake cycle, energy level and ridding the body of allergens. And so, the cycle goes; allergens trigger an increase in histamine, which triggers the release of cortisol to modulate inflammation. After continually sending out cortisol to manage inflammation, the adrenal glands get tired. As the adrenals fatigue, cortisol becomes depleted and allergies can worsen. Identifying the foods that your immune system may be responding to and removing them from the diet can help take some of the burden off the adrenals. This cycle of the body sending out histamine and then cortisol to respond to food sensitivities over and over again is a type of chronic stress that will deplete the whole body over time.

Pain:

What are the physical manifestations of stress that tell you it’s time to do something different than what you’ve done before? Pain is a great signal (symptom) that something in your body is off and needs attention. Lots of us experience pain that we have come to believe is just part of aging. But, if you have you been working diligently to take care of your body but you’re finding that pain is not reducing or disappearing like it once did, you may need to investigate changes in hormone levels (cortisol, DHEA and sex hormones), key nutrient levels (B-12 and Vitamin D) or neurotransmitter levels.

Often people report that the exercise or yoga class that always made them feel good has become painful, or that the magic Chiropractor, Physical Therapist or Massage Therapist, who has always been able to solve their problem before has lost their touch. Maybe. But maybe you’ve had a prolonged amount of stress in the form of the loss of a loved one, battles with your boss at work, or overtraining for the marathon you’ve always wanted to run. Stressful life events can tax your endocrine system leading to the depletion of hormones and neurotransmitters that help keep us focused and out of pain. If the physical solutions you’ve always used to keep you going just aren’t working anymore, you may need to look to the inner workings of your body to begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Did you know that the primary, inhibitory neurotransmitters serotonin and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) become depleted by chronic stress and physical pain? When these levels are out of balance symptoms such as depression, anxiety, worry, obsessive thoughts, sleep cycle disturbances, carbohydrate/sugar cravings, PMS and difficulty with pain control can occur. As Serotonin and GABA become depleted, levels of norepinephrine and epinephrine may decline as well. These two neurotransmitters are excreted from the adrenals just like cortisol.

Now What?

If you find yourself waking in the middle of the night consistently or wanting to take a midday nap at your desk, cortisol or an imbalance in neurotransmitters may be the underlying issue. When we don’t get restful sleep, the body does not properly repair itself and the adrenals fail to fully rejuvenate. This can make it hard to wake up in the morning and get through the day. When this happens, we tend to reach for coffee or other caffeinated beverages, but these efforts continue the vicious cycle only adding fuel to the fire.

If you suspect stress might be the cause of some of the symptoms you have been experiencing, the best course of action would be to check your levels of cortisol, DHEA, or your neurotransmitters. This can be done with a stress test, or a brain balance test, and can coordinate with personalized wellness solutions to help you eliminate stress, and learn how to take back your health.