Picture this: You’re powering through the work day when all of a sudden you’re asked to join your manager for a quick meeting. Your palms begin to sweat. Your heart races. Your body says, “Get ready.”
Sound familiar? When you’re faced with a stressful situation, your hypothalamus, a region of the brain that links the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland, responds by sending out stress hormones. This response is designed to quickly prepare your body to react to an emergency. However, when this stress response fires continuously throughout the day, it can put your overall health and wellbeing at risk.
Since April is Stress Awareness Month, we decided to dig into the 6 ways stress can affect different systems of the body.
The central nervous system (CNS) is responsible for your “fight or flight” response. This response begins with the hypothalamus telling the adrenal glands to release two stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol.
These hormones speed up your heartbeat, sending blood rushing to your heart, muscles and other important organs.
When the perceived fear is gone, the hypothalamus will tell all systems to return to normal. If the CNS doesn’t level out, or the stressor doesn’t go away, the response will continue. This continuous response could become chronic stress, which could lead to sleep problems, overeating, not eating enough, alcohol or drug misuse or social withdrawal.
Stress hormones can also affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. As those stress hormones are firing, you may find yourself breathing faster to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood to your body.
If you have a breathing issue, like asthma or emphysema, the stress response can make it more challenging to breathe.
During the stress response, your heart also pumps faster. Adrenaline and cortisol cause your blood vessels to constrict and send more oxygen to your muscles for strength to take action.
This raises your blood pressure and can result in chronic stress that makes your heart work too hard over a long period of time. This may increase your risk for having a stroke or heart attack.
Stress can affect your digestive system in a few ways.
During the stress response, your liver produces extra glucose, which gives you an energy boost. If your body stays in a constant state of stress, it may not be able to keep up with the extra glucose and this can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The symptoms of stress can also upset your digestive system. In fact, you’re more likely to have heartburn or acid reflux due to an increased amount of stomach acid. While stress doesn’t cause ulcers, it can increase your risk for them and may cause existing ones to flare up.
Stress can also change the way food moves through your body. It may cause diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting or a stomach ache.
When you’re stressed, your muscles tense up. If they don’t have a chance to relax, that tension can lead to headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches.
This kind of constant muscle tension can set off an unhealthy cycle, especially if you stop exercising and turn to pain medication for relief.
When your body is constantly experiencing stress, it’s not unusual to lose your desire for sexual activity. Men experiencing short-term stress may produce more testosterone, but this effect often doesn’t last.
If stress continues, a man’s testosterone levels may drop. This can interfere with sperm production and lead to erectile dysfunction or impotence. Chronic stress can also increase the risk of infection for male reproductive organs.
When women experience stress, they may notice a change in their menstrual cycle. Chronic stress can lead to irregular, heavier or more painful periods. It may even magnify the physical symptoms of menopause.
Stress stimulates the immune system, helping avoid infections and heal wounds. However, constant stress can weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders.
Chronic stress may make people more susceptible to viral illnesses and other infections. Stress doesn’t only heighten the risk for illness, it makes it more difficult to recover from illness, too.
It’s important to know how stress can manifest in different systems of your body to help recognize symptoms of chronic stress and take measures to prevent ongoing stressors in your life. One unique way to manage your anxiety and chronic stress can be through float therapy, a therapeutic technique in which individuals lay belly-up in a warm water tank saturated with enough salt to cause them to float.
Genomind’s Mindful DNA™ genetic test may help individuals who are seeking to modify lifestyle choices that impact their stress levels. Mindful DNA, a genetic test used by clinicians, helps guide lifestyle, diet and/or nutritional supplement decisions that may improve the overall health and wellbeing of patients. The results report provides personalized, actionable information that helps patients make changes to their lifestyle, habits and activities in order to improve their quality of life. The test analyzes 32 genes in six key areas. For each at-risk gene result, the test report specifies holistic steps patients can take in collaboration with their healthcare provider to achieve better health.
Learn more about how stress can affect the body here.