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Chronic stress can take many forms in our lives.  It could be a stressful job; the loss of a job or long-term unemployment; chronic health issues; lifestyle disruptions due to pandemic lock-downs; family issues; the illness or death of a loved one; political or economic uncertainty…the list can go on and on.

As an introduction, let us remind ourselves of the primary effect of stress: increased Cortisol levels.  Cortisol is often referred to as the Stress Hormone, and is produced by your adrenal glands during times of stress.  Cortisol is directly responsible for the “Fight or Flight” response that one may experience during an emergency.  You may think of an example such as a person being able to lift a car off of someone when they would not normally be able to lift such an object.  That sort of super-human strength is the result of cortisol, as well as its partner hormone, adrenaline.  In times of emergency, this cortisol-adrenaline production is absolutely vital for survival.  

Cortisol naturally rises and falls throughout the day in conjunction with your circadian rhythms:  at night cortisol drops to its lowest level, then begins to increase, peaking around 8 am.  This cortisol increase helps us get our day started by causing the liver to mobilize stored glucose, increasing your energy.  Normal cortisol levels assist in digestion, and even prevent inflammation.  But what happens to your body when stress becomes chronic?  Let’s take a look at the effects of chronic stress.

Inflammation:

When stress becomes chronic, the body’s built-in inflammatory response becomes impaired.  When cortisol is being diverted elsewhere (remember “Fight or Flight”; cortisol thinks you need to be “saved”), its innate ability to lower inflammation is damaged, allowing inflammation to run rampant.  This can cause chronic pain and tissue damage.

Sleep:

In a classic chicken-or-the-egg situation, elevated cortisol disrupts healthy sleep patterns, leading to ongoing low-level stress, which elevates cortisol even further.  

The Gut:

Ongoing stress can alter the gut-brain axis, resulting in varying gastrointestinal disorders, such as IBS, IBD, GERD, increased gut permeability, decreases in intestinal mucosa and blood-flow, increased food allergies, and microbiome changes.

Cardiac Effects:

Chronic stress has a reputation for increasing the frequency of cardiovascular events, by increasing blood pressure.  Elevated blood pressure increases your risk for heart-attacks and stroke.  When you aren’t aware that you have high blood pressure, the danger becomes even more sinister because you aren’t able to deal with a blood pressure problem you don’t know you have.  Blood pressure must be measured appropriately, it is not a symptom that you can “feel”.

Weight Gain:

When true trauma happens, the body uses a high amount of calories in its survival attempts.  (For example, if you are being chased by a tiger, you will use a great deal of energy to escape).  After the emergency situation is over, it is normal and advisable to re-fuel.  But chronic low-level stress inspires the same desire for calories, without the initial caloric outlay.  This may result in a chronic state of over-fueling, leading to slow and steady weight gain.  In addition, elevated cortisol leads to elevated insulin levels, lowering your blood sugar and leading to cravings for comfort foods.

Immunity:

When your body senses an emergency, it effectively “shuts off” processes that are not immediately necessary.  This can include fertility, digestion and nutrient absorption, and even the ability to fight illness.  Cortisol can decrease the number of killer cells present in your bloodstream, thus lowering your natural defenses to pathogens and even cancer cells.

Very few of us can say we don’t have any chronic stressors in our lives.  The NUCCA and Nutrition Programs at Body in Harmony can help you overcome the effects of chronic stress, so please contact us.  But it’s not all bad news!  In our next article, join us as we discuss multiple ways you can combat the effects of stress in your own life.

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