How Stress Affects the Human Body

Prepared by Sadok Derbel, RMT
December 2010

It’s in your head:  Most people believe they control their stress levels. But stress is a physical response, an evolutionary tool that helps us respond to threats. When presented with a stressful situation, the body responds by releasing two hormones: cortisol and adrenalin. These naturally occurring hormones allow us to initiate our fight or flight response, giving us the energy, giving us the energy to battle or outrun perceived threats. And the brain releases the same hormones in the face of a looming deadline as it does a deadly predator. But once you become chronically stressed, your body adapts and begins releasing these hormones preemptively. After enduring a lot of stress, you will become a “hyper secretor of cortisol”, and the hormone can have many affects on how your brain works. High levels of cortisol can cause sleeplessness and fatigue and trouble concentrating. Research has also shown that is responsible for depression, anxiety and burnout. When too much cortisol is released, the brain interprets everything as a threat. And new research has also found that stress has a direct impact on memory loss. The hippocampus area of the brain is responsible for stress response and memory formation. The two are linked so we can remember past threats. But flooding the hippocampus with too much cortisol can change the brain circuitry and make it difficult to form new memories.

Chest:  A flood of stress hormones also causes plaque buildup in the arteries, clogging and restricting blood flow. Because of this, a system under stress does not get enough blood, increasing the likelihood of a heart attack. Adding to this threat is the relationship between cortisol and cholesterol. The body needs cholesterol to produce cortisol, and chronically stressed system will jack up its cholesterol production. But high cholesterol levels have their own health risks, further blocking arteries and increasing the chances of heart disease. Chronic stress also causes a constant elevation of blood pressure, which leads to hypertension, the number one reason the doctor’s visit in Canada.

Abdomen:  Responding to stress requires a lot of energy, and a system that deals with a lot of stress will begin storing it up in advance. This means that the lipids and glucids (fat and carbohydrates) required to produce energy will be stored in the abdomen, where it’s easier for the body to access them. Those facing chronic stress often gain weight in their stomachs. A statistics Canada study in 2009 found that men who work more than 40 hours a week more likely to be obese than those who work 30 to 40 hours per week. To make matters worse, the hormones are also closely associated with the body’s production of insulin, and insulin levels rise, so does likelihood of contracting diabetes. The correlation between stress and ulcers has long been debated. In the 1980’s, research indicated that the painful internal wounds were not caused by stress, but by a bacterial disorder. But it turns out that when the body is stressed, it shuts down all non-essential system, including the immune system that fights everything from the common cold to stomach bacteria. Stress also stops the body from being able to repair the damage caused by ulcers.

Pelvis:  A body dealing with stress doesn’t have much time for other things. Sexual dysfunction, erectile dysfunction, infertility and irregular menstrual cycles are all associated with heightened stress levels. Stress during pregnancy can also have generational affect. Research has found that babies conceived during stressful times in their mother’s lives develop differently. As adults, they have elevated levels of stress hormones, indicating that their mother’s stress triggered a change in the baby’s development.

Bones:  Too much of any hormone can have a negative impact on every part of the body. An increased level of stress has been linked to decreases bone density and muscle tissue.

Cellular level:  We’ve all seen the before and after pictures that shows how dramatically U.S. presidents age through their tenure. New research has shown that stress can actually shorten your life, wearing away at your body on a chromosomal level. Stress has been shown to impact the body’s telomeres, a region of a repetitive DNA that protects the end of a body’s chromosomes from frying. Telomeres naturally shorten with age, but stress speeds up the process. One study mothers who care for disable children found that the length of women’s telomeres directly related to the amount of stress they were under. Each year of caring for disable child resulted in roughly six years of aging. An stress affects our brain cells too. A study that exposed lab rats to chronic stress found that their brain cells became dramatically smaller.

Regimens: Massage benefits are more than skin deep.
Does a good massage do more than just relax? To find out, researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles recruited 53 healthy adults and randomly assigned 29 of them to a 45- minute session of deep-tissue Swedish massage and the other 24 to a session of light massage.

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All of the subjects were fitted with intravenous catheters so blood samples could be taken immediately before the massage and up to an hour afterward.

To their surprise, the researchers, sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of health, found that a single session of massage caused biological changes.

Volunteers who received Swedish massage experienced significant decreases in levels of the stress hormone cortisol in blood and saliva, and in arginine vasopressin, a hormone that can lead to increases in cortisol. They also had increases in the number of lymphocytes, white blood cells that are part of the immune system.

Volunteers who had the light massage experienced greater increases in oxytocin, a hormone associated with contentment, that the Swedish massage group, and bigger decreases in adrenal corticotrophin hormone, which stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol.

The study was published online in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine.

The lead author, Dr. Mark Hyman Rapaport, chairman of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Cedar- Sinai, said the findings were “very, very intriguing and very, very exciting- and I’m a skeptic”.

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Tip of the month from your massage therapist:

Stress is part of life. We can’t avoid stress; we can only manage it and attempt to reduce it in our lives. This is especially true in the holiday season with all the demands of work, friends and family. But with that said, we can simplify our lives to minimize stress. At this busy time of year it is important to pause and to take a look at all the demands on us. Which one’s really are important? Which one’s can be postponed? And, which one’s are unrealistic or unfair? It is important to set realistic goals and equally important to make time for one’s self.

To help cope with stress, there are certain techniques you can use. Over the course of a day as you run around, you can always find a few moments to practice a few relaxation techniques. First off, allow yourself to take time for yourself. Find a quiet spot to just sit and meditate. Remember to breathe deeply. Clear one’s mind. Practice some stretching exercises. Just take a few moments to look up, to look at the sky and to allow one’s self to relax. Remember to keep up your exercise routine as it will help you manage your stress and give you more energy. Take a yoga class to practice relaxation techniques. Beware over indulging in the holidays as this just masks stress and you will have to pay for it later. Allowing time in your schedule to manage stress will result in you coming through the holidays and entering the New Year with a smile and newfound energy.