Nowadays, the word “stress” is heard all the time. The expressions “I am stressed”, “I live in constant stress” are perceived as a kind of sign of distinction, evidence of a busy business life. However, you shouldn’t take stress so lightly. Together with the author of the book “The Immune System Restoration Program”, let’s look at the negative impact of stressful situations on our body.
What is stress
Stress is defined as the body’s response to so-called stressors. They can be emotional or physical. Severe stressful events include the death of a loved one, divorce or breakup, physical or emotional abuse or trauma. Less obvious stressors include sleep deprivation, malnutrition, prolonged strenuous work, excessive exercise, and over-caring for others to our detriment. Positive events such as getting married, getting a dream job, or moving to another city can also be stressors.
There are people who are very susceptible to stress, who immediately notice both its physical effects (for example, stomach pain, headaches, or heart palpitations) and emotional (irritability, fatigue, cravings for sweets or salty). But I often meet other people with a light, cheerful disposition, happy with life, who do not even suspect that their body may be suffering or that the physical symptoms they feel are nothing more than a consequence of stress. In fact, many people get so used to living in a state of constant stress that they simply do not notice it. Others just need it to feel like a successful person. Nevertheless, despite the variety of nuances, all stress factors trigger a whole cascade of processes in the body called the stress response.
To understand what stress is, you need to learn one important thing: our body has developed two main mechanisms for responding to stress. The first is the reaction of the nervous system, the second is the activation of hormones, the most important of which, cortisol and adrenaline, are produced by the adrenal glands.
The nervous system’s response to stress
To understand how the nervous system responds to stress, let’s clarify a few points. The human brain and spinal cord are the central nervous system. The rest of the nerves form the peripheral nervous system, which is divided into two parts – somatic and autonomic. The nerves of the somatic nervous system are connected to the muscles, this part can be easily controlled by conscious mental effort. For example, in this way we move the arm, lift the leg, or look to the right or left. The autonomic nervous system controls the functions of the body that are considered automatic – heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, respiration rate, digestion, and others.
How our body works largely depends on the vegetative system. It has two components that balance each other, which play the role of a switch. One of them – the sympathetic nervous system – turns on when we are under stress. This is one of the mechanisms of the stress response. The second component – the parasympathetic nervous system – is a kind of switch, it acts as a brake, helping us to relax and turn off the stress response.
The autonomic nervous system is a system with a hard-coded sequence of actions. This means that the stress response is triggered in the brain, and then the signal goes through all the nerves, stimulating various organs, including the stomach, heart, adrenal glands and lymphoid organs, where all T cells mature and develop. This programmed integration into the immune system is essential for the functioning of T cells.
When we are under stress, our sympathetic system triggers what is called a fight-or-flight response. Its first manifestation is an increase in heart rate. This is due to two reasons. First, the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the heart directly, and second, the adrenal glands release the hormone adrenaline, which also increases the heart rate. But our body also provides an antidote for this: the parasympathetic nervous system comes into play, which should turn off the “fight or flight” reaction and thereby help us return to a state of balance so that we do not remain overwhelmed for long.
The hormonal system’s response to stress
The second mechanism of response to stress is the triggering of a chain of hormonal reactions in the brain. The chain reaction begins in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, areas of the brain that regulate the hormonal system. They are located side by side and are closely related. These areas are often viewed as the place where our emotions, thoughts, and feelings are converted into hormonal signals. The pituitary gland can be thought of as the conductor of an orchestra of endocrine glands. It secretes hormones, which in turn stimulate all endocrine glands, including the thyroid, adrenal glands, and ovaries or testes, to produce their own hormones. When the stress response is triggered, the hypothalamus begins to release corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), then the pituitary gland releases the hormone adrenocorticotropin. This causes the adrenal glands to secrete the main stress hormone, cortisol.
Of the several stress hormones, cortisol is the most potent and has many-sided effects on the body. Severe and sudden stress leads to increased cortisol levels. Cortisol causes blood sugar to rise to provide energy for the fight-or-flight response. It is the main anti-inflammatory hormone that suppresses the cells of the immune system and prepares the body for possible damage. In the event of injury, inflammation triggered by the cells of the immune system can make the healing process more difficult. Therefore, by suppressing the immune system, cortisol helps prevent its hyperactivity and the production of tissue-damaging molecules that need to be repaired.
Manifestations of the stress response
Understanding these two stress responses (the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system and the cortisol response) is essential because they directly affect the immune system. But first, let’s talk about how stress responses feel.
The reaction to a stressful situation can be acute, but it can also last after the situation is resolved. For example: If you have had conflicts with a friend or partner, or were caring for a seriously ill relative, you may have been unable to sleep for a long time at night due to anxiety or anxiety, felt muscle tension causing back or neck pain, or a rapid heart rate. Tension headache or other types of headache, stomach pain, and irritable bowel syndrome may occur, such as diarrhea and / or constipation. Symptoms such as dry eyes, dry mouth, cold hands or feet are also possible. If these sensations do not go away for too long, you may find that you have begun to hurt frequently. The immune system has malfunctioned.
EFFECTS OF HIGH LEVEL OF CORTISOL
1. Increased appetite and food cravings.
2. Increase in body fat.
3. Decreased muscle mass.
4. Decrease in bone density.
5. Increased anxiety.
6. Increased depression.
7. Mood swings (anger and irritability).
8. Decreased sex drive.
9. Disorders in the immune system.
10. Impaired memory and learning ability.
11. Increased PMS symptoms such as fluid retention and irritability.
12. Change in the menstrual cycle.
13. Intensification of menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats.
One of the most common symptoms of persistently elevated cortisol levels is an increase in waist size. Studies have shown that under stress, people experience an overwhelming cravings for sugary and fatty foods. These foods stimulate the production of insulin, a hormone that lowers blood sugar. The combination of high concentrations of insulin and cortisol causes fat to accumulate around the viscera, leading to abdominal obesity. Not only does it become difficult to button up trousers, belly fat, or “brown fat,” looks and behaves differently from other adipose tissue in the body, but it causes numerous foci of inflammation. And inflammation is a common root cause of all autoimmune diseases and other illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.
How to protect yourself from the negative effects of stress and improve your health, the book “Program for the restoration of the immune system” will tell you.