What is stress and how does it affect the body?

Stress affects the balance of certain hormones and the factors that contribute are our emotions, lifestyle, diet, exercise, injury and environment.

Whether the stress is physical or emotional, the body only knows one way of responding. It will trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response, which is nature’s way of preparing us to run away or stay and fight. Of course we don’t do either but the body prepares! Two hormones are released, Adrenalin and Cortisol, to help us stay in control. The heart starts to beat faster, breathing and sweating increases, the muscles tense and the stomach clenches as the blood is taken away from digestion to the muscles to prepare them to work fast.

Once the stress is removed the body will return to normal. However, if the stress continues the body produces too much Cortisol, raising blood sugar levels to sustain energy and raise blood pressure and also disabling your brain cells, causing mental haziness, forgetfulness and confusion.

When the Cortisol levels are first increased it helps the immune system to resist infections and disease, but as the stress continues it ultimately suppresses the immune system and lowers our resistance to these things. An increased Cortisol level also leads to other disorders such as insulin resistance and sugar cravings. Sugar is not just non-nutritive, it is anti-nutritive and your body has to borrow from its stores of nutrients in order to process it. It is pro-inflammatory, and an immune system depressor, in fact it can put your white blood cells to sleep for hours. High Cortisol levels also cause weight gain, high blood pressure, sexual dysfunction and slow wound healing.

When there is an increase in Cortisol, another hormone, DHEA, is produced to help with resistance to infections, energy and vitality, sleep and mental clarity. However, as the Cortisol goes up with continued stress, so the DHEA levels come down. For healthy adrenals and a healthy immune system it is important to balance the two hormones. The lower your levels of stress and the better your attitude, the more likely you are to fight off infections.

The final stage of stress is ‘adrenal burnout’, where your emotional, mental and physical resources are all greatly depleted. This leads to mental and physical exhaustion and illness.

Wyndham Health