Stress can elicit numerous, complex effects on both the body and mind. Answering the question of how stress affects your health, however, is multilayered.
One difficulty with studying the science of stress is that stress is subjective. Activities or events that feel stressful to one person may not affect another person in the same way at all (public speaking, for example). Therefore, stress has to either be self-reported or measured by the levels of stress hormones circulating in the blood.
There are also different types of stress. There are physical stressors that put direct pressure on the body or organs in one way or another (think intense aerobic exercise in a laboratory “stress test”), and psychological stressors that put pressure on your mind or psyche, causing hormonal and neurotransmitter changes that indirectly affect your body.
When people refer to feeling “stressed”, psychological stress is the usual culprit. Within this category, though, there are acute stressors like unforeseen disasters, or traumatic, life-changing events that shock the system into fight-or-flight mode. Maybe even more common are ongoing stressors, which are repetitive lifestyle factors (generally at work or at home) that leave us feeling irritable, worried, or cause difficulty sleeping.
Although the ways in which acute and chronic psychological stressors affect our body systems are different, psychological stress can have a negative impact on both our mental and physical health.
A traumatic event is classified as acute stress, but “traumatic events” can range from a surprise birthday party to the death of a loved one, or from an earthquake to an asthma attack. Again, stress and stressors are all subjective.
When one experiences a stressful event, the impact it has on the body is based on the magnitude of your body’s reaction. During that moment of fright, your autonomic nervous system is activated. Your body releases increased levels of cortisol, adrenaline, and hormones that are meant to prepare your body for “fight-or-flight”.
Your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, and blood pressure increases. Blood rushes away from the extremities and digestive organs to the muscles that are needed to run or fight. If the initially-perceived threat soon registers as insignificant, the body can return to a relaxed state. This rest-and-recover period must follow fight-or-flight for the body to return to homeostasis.
With repeated exposure to stressful events the body may get stuck in fight-or-flight mode with little ability to recover. Though the perception of stress starts in the brain, prolonged stress can cause negative effects to the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, endocrine, reproductive, and gastrointestinal systems .
The stress hormone cortisol is typically associated with ongoing stress. Cortisol increases the level of energy fuel available by mobilizing glucose and fatty acids from the liver. Cortisol is normally produced in varying levels throughout the day, ideally increasing in concentration upon awakening and slowly declining throughout the day, providing a daily cycle of energy. When cortisol is released at higher concentrations over time, the signaling system it triggers may become dysregulated . This dysregulation has secondary effects on energy balance, mood, and the immune system .
Stress can elevate blood pressure and heart rate, and over time these effects can have negative, lasting effects on the heart and blood vessels [1,2].
Stress can affect the gastrointestinal system from esophagus to bowels . Maybe most importantly, stress conditions can change the environment of the gut, causing imbalance of microbial population in the gut. As the gut is not only the major site of nutrient absorption, but also secretion of important hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters, this dysbiosis can cause holistic health challenges throughout the body, including mood and energy balance .
Promoting Stress Resilience
Life will never be stress free but focusing on stress resilience can help increase our ability to respond well in the face of adversity.
Consider the source
The best solution is the healthy management of stress itself. Trying to mitigate the symptoms will never address the root cause.
If the source of stress is coming from your home life, consider seeking counseling to manage your relationships, or asking for help if care-giving responsibilities are becoming too much.
If it is your work that is causing repeated stress, consider opportunities to delegate your tasks or better organize your time. Finding ways to relieve your work stress and balance responsibilities will prevent more acutely stressful consequences (like losing the job completely or quitting due to burnout).
Learn to let go
Alternatively, finding ways to let go of stress at the end of the day may help you show up ready to conquer more tomorrow morning. Finding a type of exercise you enjoy doing is key. For one, if you enjoy doing it, it can be a reward at the end of a hard day, rather than feeling like yet another item on your long to-do list.
When we exercise, the body releases endorphins that bring on an instant and natural mood-boost. Exercise also promotes cardiovascular health by supporting healthy blood pressure, strengthening the heart muscle, and helping to maintain a healthy weight .
Meditation has also been shown to support cardiovascular health and normal blood pressure . It can be a spiritual practice including prayer but certainly doesn’t have to be. Try sitting quietly and focusing on deep breathing for a few minutes or choose a guided meditation designed around stress relief. There are many free or inexpensive options available online, through YouTube, or within downloadable meditation apps for your smartphone.
Speaking of smartphones, consider unplugging for a period of time every day. Especially if you feel like work follows you home, set up boundaries around hours of availability. It may be easier to be present with your family if you are unreachable by work after a certain hour. Avoiding the blue light of smartphones and computer screens before bed can better prepare your brain for sleep.
Nutrition for Stress Relief
No substitute for a healthy diet
As mentioned earlier, many of the health problems related to stress are exacerbated by unhealthy habits. One of which is a poor diet. A poor diet could mean skipping meals because eating when you’re stressed can be unappealing. The problem is that a skipped meal leads to low blood sugar levels which can have a negative effect on both your mood, focus, and energy level throughout the day . Regularly under-eating can set you up for insufficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals. This can affect mood balance, energy levels, and your body’s overall ability to deal with stress.
At the other end of the spectrum, a poor diet may also refer to comfort eating. This term refers to choosing foods that soothe you, regardless of hunger or nutritional value. Fatty foods may taste good, but they can make us feel lethargic and affect our productivity and stress levels in the short term. In the long term, a diet too high in saturated fat can cause build up in our arteries and unnecessary weight gain, which are both risk factors for poor health.
Try to make varied, healthy choices in the foods we eat throughout the day. Remember to ask yourself if it’s hunger or stress that’s prompting us to reach for the fridge. These are important aspects of nutritional control and stress management. There are additional, natural, nutritional supplements that may aid in stress relief available as well.
Supplements for stress
GABA (or gamma aminobutyric acid) is a calming neurotransmitter that may help balance your mood in times of stress. You can supplement GABA as a stand alone nutrient, or Metabolic Maintenance offers a blended product called Stress Maintenance. It is designed to support GABA signaling and a return to calm in times of stress. Stress Maintenance combines GABA support with calming botanical extracts, lemon balm and passion flower, as well as magnesium, glycine, and vitamin B-6.
MetaCalm is yet another blend designed specifically to support your mind and body in times of occasional stress. As your body tends to quickly use more nutrients under stressful conditions, MetaCalm includes a full-spectrum multivitamin. This way, it also boosts the specific nutrients used in biochemical processes involved in stress response. It also includes L-theanine, the calming amino acid isolated from green tea.
You can also find L-theanine in our brand new stress and sleep support product, Ashwagandha Plus. In this blend, L-theanine is combined with ashwagandha, the most popular stress-support adaptogen on the market, and magnesium bisglycinate. Magnesium is an important mineral for hundreds of biochemical processes. These include the relaxation of muscles and calming of the physical body.
Last, but not least we are now offering Balanced Response. Balanced Response is a one-a-day answer to nutrition, immune support, and mitigation of stress on the body. It is an elderberry and ashwagandha blend that also includes immune and stress supportive vitamins and minerals. It can be taken like a daily multivitamin.
Whatever the source of your stress, we hope you find a healthy solution. Talk to your doctor about the best long-term care for your body to protect the health of your cardiovascular system.