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By: Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN

We live in a culture that is constantly encouraging us to change our diet and exercise habits to achieve better health. While diet and exercise are part of overall wellness, we often forget the impact of stress, and how it plays into our health and well-being. 

Stress and Health

By definition, stress is the body’s physical, mental and/or emotional reaction to any change that elicits an adjustment or response.

In its nature, stress is a normal part of life. We all experience stress, yet we all handle it differently. Not all stress is inherently bad for our health. In fact, in acute doses, stress is actually good for us.

How Does Stress Affect Us?

Stress activates the body’s fight-or-flight response, which is meant to be a protective mechanism. The body produces hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that can help boost alertness, trigger an increase in heart rate, muscle tension and pulse, all of which can be helpful during exercise, dangerous or exciting situations. 

Stress also increases brain chemicals that power productivity, concentration and cognitive performance.  In acute situations, this is a good thing. However, when stress becomes chronic and our bodies are constantly in a high adrenaline state, it can negatively affect our mood, health and well-being.

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The Connection Between Stress and Health

How Does Stress Impact Health?

The hormones released during acute and intermittent stress aren’t meant to be lasting or permanent. When our bodies stay tense and remain in a high fight-or-flight state day after day, it takes a toll on our health.

Chronic stimulation of the cardiovascular system due to stress, such as increased heart rate and pulse, can lead to sustained increases in blood pressure and vascular hypertrophy (1). When levels of cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine remain high, the digestive system slows down as there is less blood and oxygen flow to the stomach. This may lead to cramping, stomach discomfort, an imbalance in gut bacteria, a change in appetite and digestion, and can decrease the absorption of nutrients.

Stress can also affect immunity, as the body is putting its energy towards remaining alert in a heightened state and is less able to fight off antigens. Ongoing stress makes us more susceptible to illness and disease.

Furthermore, diabetes, depression, poor digestion, fatigue, insomnia and menstrual problems are just some of the conditions that have been linked to high levels of stress (2).

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What Can You Do?

Firstly, it can help to tune in to how you’re feeling to become aware of your body’s reactions to daily occurrences. Are you anxious, tense or burned out? Have you been experiencing a change in digestion or sleep? Regularly checking in with yourself to ensure you’re not tensing your muscles can also help with awareness.

While it may be impossible to eliminate stress, learning to mitigate the body’s response to it can help improve health measures. Engaging in regular exercise and/or relaxing activities like meditation, tai chi, deep breathing and gentle yoga, may help boost mood and well-being. Prioritizing sleep and eating consistent meals and snacks may also help your overall mood and sense of well-being. Lastly, setting goals and having supportive people to talk to can also be great options for managing stress. 

As always, we recommend consulting your licensed healthcare professional if you have any questions or concerns.

Sources:

  1. Schneiderman N, Ironson G and Siegal SD. Stress and Health: Psychological and Biological Determinants. Annu Rev Clin Psychol.2005; (1):607-628.
  2. Larzelere MM, Jones GN. Stress and Health. Prim Care. 2008; 35(4):839-56