In these uncertain economic times, many of us are under more stress than we may be used to. While stress is a necessary and sometimes unavoidable consequence in life, we must know that it can take a toll on our overall health if we’re not careful.
The human body is an amazing machine. It is very well adapted to respond to our environment and allow us to survive and flourish in a myriad of situations. One of the ways it adapts is through the stress response. The stress response is critical for human survival. That being said, chronic or undue stress can be harmful for our health. The stress response may be activated by physical or mental anguish. Interestingly, whether a mental stressor is real or perceived the response by the body is the same. The body is also unable to distinguish the difference between physical and mental stress. Both produce the same response.
The stress response begins with the activation of the fight or flight system in our bodies. This is called the sympathetic nervous system. This releases hormones like adrenalin and noradrenalin. This signals the body that there is an alarm. It raises the respiratory rate, heart rate, increases sweating, dilates the pupils and shuts down the digestive system along with anything else unnecessary for immediate survival. The adrenal glands also secrete cortisol which allows us to have a ready supply of energy if needed. This scenario is called acute stress. Our bodies are designed to handle this form of stress. When the stress becomes chronic, as it all too often does in modern society, it becomes extremely detrimental to our health.
Humans evolved to handle acute stress not chronic stress. If you lived 20,000 years ago long term stress was not part of your life. Acute stress was but once that scenario was over so was the body’s stress response. For example, if you were being chased by a saber toothed tiger that scenario had two possible outcomes – 1. you got away and the stress was over or 2. the tiger got you and the stress was over. Our bodies evolved to deal with this, not low grade chronic stress.
Chronic stress most often occurs because of a negative change in our lives, such as a down-turn in the economy, and causes the same reaction in the body as acute stress, only on a lower level. It can lead to problems such as ulcers, trouble with digestion, insomnia, anxiety, depression, headaches, back pain, weight gain and high blood pressure. Remember, the stress response is designed to help us deal with life-threatening situations and should only be short acting. When situations arise that have long-term implications, chronic stress may become part of your daily life and negatively affect your health.
Your best bet to guard against the effects of chronic stress is to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Exercise is a great stress reliever. Getting 20-30 minutes of exercises daily not only reduces our perception of stress, but it also helps prevent the physical ailments associated with it. A healthy diet is also essential. It provides us with the fuel to manage our day. I also recommend supplements to support your system. In particular, I like supplements that are designed to support the adrenal glands. Many companies make these but consult a practitioner trained in functional medicine to get a quality brand.
Remember, stress not only has an effect on our mental health, it also can have severe effects on our physical health. If you feel as if stress is a significant factor in your life, don’t put off doing something about it. Taking action steps to help yourself is often stress relieving in and of it self. Waiting may have deleterious effects later in your life.