Stress allows facing and overcoming difficulties, but if the physiological alterations that it triggers are maintained over time, they can deteriorate health. Find out how chronic stress affects every system in the body.
Stress is a normal biologic response to a potentially dangerous situation, which prepares our body to fight or flee; that is, to face the risk or avoid it. Although pleasant, desired, and even carefully planned events, such as a wedding or a vacation trip, can also stress us out, but which involve factors that we cannot foresee or control in advance.
Experiencing stress is something inevitable and intrinsic to human beings, which has helped them survive throughout their history. Dr. Beatriz Rodríguez Vega, a psychiatrist at the La Paz University Hospital in Madrid, explains that in a stressful situation, the hypothalamus of the brain sends signals that cause the release of hormones – adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol – that induce changes in respiration and heart rate, among others. They also increase muscle tension and glucose production.
This expert affirms that stress mobilizes energy, and in principle, it is a good and necessary response of the organism, but that “more and more we live in mental constructions in which we anticipate the future –especially the negative aspects–, we long for the past, and we lose the connection with what is happening in the present that mindfulness proposes, and the anticipation of problems internally triggers the general alarm response, even if there is no real danger.”
For this reason, unlike acute stress, chronic stress – regardless of the factors that have motivated it – has negative consequences for physical and psychological health and causes numerous effects and symptoms in our body. Detecting them as soon as possible and learning to prevent stress and deal with it without falling into catastrophism can prevent cardiovascular diseases, obesity, or diabetes, among others.
Central nervous system and endocrine system
The central nervous system (CNS) plays a decisive role in the fight or flight response generated by a stressful event. The hypothalamus (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) – which connects the brain and the endocrine system – indicates the adrenal glands that produce the hormones adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol, which increase respiratory and heart rates so that blood quickly reaches the areas of the body that need it most in an emergency. Such as the muscles or the heart, causing dilation veins in the extremities, and alter the digestive process to raise blood sugar levels, all to help the body cope with danger or facilitate flight.
Cortisol, popularly known as the stress hormone, is produced naturally throughout the day to provide energy to the body. Hence, its concentration usually increases when we wake up and decreases progressively from there. During an episode of stress, the increase in cortisol can provide the energy needed to cope.
Suppose the individual suffers from chronic stress because the stressful experiences are prolonged in time. In that case, the CNS continues to activate those physical reactions that wear down the body and deteriorate its health.
During the stress response, breathing is accelerated to distribute oxygen-rich blood throughout the body, which is a problem for patients with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including pulmonary emphysema and chronic bronchitis, in those that can intensify breathing difficulties.
A stressed individual’s heart beats faster (they may experience tachycardia ) and contracts more forcefully, and stress hormones cause blood vessels to constrict and divert more oxygen to the muscles to increase resistance. Still, As a result, blood pressure also increases, so chronic stress makes the heart work harder for longer, and this increases the risk of hypertension, a stroke, or myocardial infarction.
When we are stressed, our muscles tighten to protect us from potential injury. Although they tend to relax again when the threat has passed, if we continue to perceive it, the muscles will not have the opportunity to relax, and this continuous muscle tension can cause headaches, neck and back pain, among other discomforts.
Stress can cause stomach pain, nausea, and even vomiting and increase or decrease your appetite. And although it is not responsible for gastric ulcers caused by the Helicobacter pylori bacteria-, it can increase the chances of suffering from them or intensify their symptoms.
The liver releases more glucose (sugar) into the blood to increase the energy needed to cope with the causes of stress. Still, the extra glucose is difficult to handle if the situation becomes chronic and increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The gut is called the second brain because its hundreds of millions of neurons can function almost independently and are in constant communication with the brain. Stress affects gut-brain communication and can trigger abdominal pain or bloating, among other disorders. According to Dr. Beatriz Rodríguez Vega, stress can alter the intestine’s motility, accelerating its activity and causing diarrhea or, on the contrary, slowing the emptying of the stomach, which can cause gastroesophageal reflux.
The millions of bacteria present in the intestine – flora or intestinal microbiota – also influence our thoughts and emotions, and stress is associated with alterations in the bacterial population of the intestine that can affect mood, and that especially harm people with inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s or irritable bowel syndrome.