You’ve heard the adage before: “manage your stress or your stress will manage you.” As it turns out, this is no wives tale; there is more truth behind this saying than you might realize. Perhaps the most shocking fact about stress is that it affects your body systemically, not just in one area. This stress can originate from anywhere and, at a basic level, is your body’s reaction to situations that can be perceived as potentially dangerous. As the New Year approaches, taking control of the stressors in our lives becomes ever more important to keep to our resolutions dedicated to being healthier and happier.
Our body responds to stress by altering the secretions of certain hormones and chemicals. A majority of these secretions originate from the adrenal gland, a small gland that is situated on top of the kidneys and releases hormones that: control the “fight or flight” response, maintain metabolic processes (i.e. blood sugar levels), regulate the balance between salt and water, maintain pregnancy and finally, initiate and control sexual maturation. In moderation, these hormones can help save your life, but for prolonged periods of time, they can have seriously detrimental effects.
Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, inhibits functions that are a detriment to the “fight or flight” response. Specifically, it alters the immune system response and suppresses the digestive tract, reproductive system and growth processes. As you can imagine, altering the immune system can leave you more susceptible to illness and suppressing the digestive tract can leave you feeling constipated and ill. Furthermore, cortisol increases the levels of glucose in your blood and enhances the brain’s use of glucose, likely leaving you craving unhealthy, fatty carbohydrates. In combination, these effects can lead to: heart disease, sleep problems, digestive problems, depression, obesity, memory impairment and worsening of skin problems. Studies have shown that high levels of cortisol are associated with an increase in risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
Another stress hormone is adrenaline (aka epinephrine) and is chiefly associated with the “fight or flight” response. After your body internalizes a perceived threat, adrenaline is released into the bloodstream, resulting in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and energy supplies. In an attempt to supply your muscles and brain with blood, adrenaline also cuts off the blood supply to the skin. For prolonged periods of time, this can manifest as hair loss or acne. Furthermore, because of its relaxation effect on smooth muscles, epinephrine allows you to breathe more intensely, as the lungs contain smooth muscle.
Aldosterone and the sex hormones, to a lesser extent, are also affected by stress. Aldosterone stimulates water and salt reabsorption by the kidneys, which, in excess, can result in increased blood pressure and edema. Stress hormones can inhibit the sex hormone gonadotropin releasing hormone, which results in a reduction in sperm count, ovulation and sexual desire. In women, stress leads to a decrease in estrogen and progesterone production and an increase in cortisol levels. This combination often results in irregular, painful menstrual cycles and can negatively impact emotions (e.g. crying, depression, anger) and sex drive. In men, stress causes a decrease in testosterone and an increase in cortisol, resulting in fatigue and a diminished sex drive.
So what are you to do if the stresses you face cannot be eliminated completely? Try to minimize them whenever possible. At work, know when to say “no” to new projects or responsibilities; by the same token, know when to delegate responsibilities to others. Take a break every hour, especially when doing intense tasks. Utilize the time you’re given for lunch. Don’t be afraid to take a day (or a half-day) for yourself every so often. As far as lifestyle remedies, go exercise! Exercise is the best way to reduce stress and cortisol levels. This is especially attractive now that summer is upon us and the warm weather beckons us outdoors. Refrain from answering your emails and phones when it’s not an emergency. Taking vacations, going for spa treatments or practicing relaxation techniques can also help you. Consuming a healthy diet and refraining from smoking, drinking alcohol or taking recreational drugs are also key measures you can take to help reduce stress. As always, speak to your doctor if you feel your stress is adversely affecting your health and life.