Part 1:How Stress Affects the Brain, Digestive System, Immune System, and Overall Health

3 January 2016
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The American Medical Association states that stress is the basic cause of more than 60% of all human diseases.

Stress has enormous negative mental and physical effects, and yet we often forget how stressful our lives are. Common signs of stress: http://positivemed.com/2012/09/15/how-stress-affects-the-body/

  1. Frequent headaches
  2. Frequent jaw clenching, or gritting or grinding teeth
  3. Stuttering or stammering
  4. Tremors, trembling of lips, hands
  5. Muscle spasms, neck pain, or backache
  6. Dizziness
  7. Ringing in ears
  8. Frequent blushing or sweating
  9. Cold or sweaty hands or feet
  10. Dry mouth and/or difficulty swallowing
  11. Frequent colds or infections
  12. Frequent rashes, itching, or goosebumps
  13. Frequent unexplained allergy symptoms
  14. Frequent heartburn or acid reflux
  15. Excessive belching
  16. Changes in bowel habits
  17. Difficulty breathing
  18. Sudden panic attacks
  19. Chest pain or palpitations
  20. Frequent urination
  21. Lowered sex drive
  22. Frequent anxiety
  23. Frequent periods of anger
  24. Depression or frequent mood swings
  25. Changes in appetite
  26. Trouble sleeping
  27. Difficulty concentrating
  28. Learning problems (things don’t stick)
  29. Memory loss, short or long-term
  30. Difficulty making decisions
  31. Feeling overwhelmed
  32. Suicidal thoughts
  33. Feelings of loneliness or worthlessness
  34. Little interest in appearance, punctuality
  35. Nervousness
  36. Increased irritability and overreaction
  37. Frequent minor accidents
  38. Obsessive or compulsive behavior
  39. Diminished productivity
  40. Excessive impulsive shopping or gambling
  41. Rapid speech
  42. Excessive defensiveness or suspiciousness
  43. Trouble communicating
  44. Social shyness and isolation
  45. Chronic fatigue
  46. Frequent use of over-the-counter medications
  47. Unexplained sudden weight gain or loss
  48. Increased smoking, alcohol abuse, or illicit drug use
  49. Dull and dry skin, wrinkles and lines

The human body does not discriminate between a big stress and a little stress.  Stress affects the body in predictable ways no matter the type of stress.  The catch is this: Short term, acute stress that we experience dozens of times a day is stress that is, typically, easily worked through.  These typical stressful situations trigger a cascade of 1,400 biochemical events in the body.  If we cannot recover from this stress, these events occurring within us can cause issues within every system of the body. From premature aging to impaired cognitive function, the body can be robbed of energy and mental clarity; health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes are just a few examples of how chronic stress can harm the body.

Types of Stress:

  • External Stress: Includes adverse physical stimulus (Think: hot and cold temperatures) or stressful psychological environments (Think: work stress and abusive relationships).
  • Internal Stress: This also includes physical stressors like illnesses or ailments and psychological stress such as worrying.

How Stress Affects the Heart (Cardiovascular System): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2979339/

Even small stressors cause an increase in adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol.  This raises the heart rate, dilating blood vessels and increasing blood pressure.  Chronic, long term stress can ultimately damage the cardiovascular system: “[A] constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels,” the American Psychological Association explains. “The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. Ultimately, it can lead to hypertension, heart palpitations, heart attack, or stroke.”

The heart and blood vessels comprise the two elements of the cardiovascular system that work together in providing nourishment and oxygen to the organs of the body. Stress affects these two elements, and causes the blood vessels that direct blood to the large muscles and the heart to dilate, thereby increasing the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body and elevating blood pressure. This is also known as the fight or flight response. Once the acute stress episode has passed, the body returns to its normal state. Repeated acute stress and persistent chronic stress may also contribute to inflammation in the circulatory system, particularly in the coronary arteries, and this is one pathway that is thought to tie stress to heart attack. It also appears that how a person responds to stress can affect cholesterol levels.

Interestingly, pre-menopausal women have been documented to have a lower risk of stress-related heart disease.  This leads us to believe that the higher levels of estrogen women have prior to menopause helps blood vessels respond better during stress; thereby helping their bodies to better handle stress and protecting them from heart disease.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22297478

A condition known as Stress Cardiomyopathy (Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy) is an intense emotional or physical stress that causes a severe heart dysfunction. Chest pain, EKG’s and echocardiograms will all point toward a heart attack, but testing shows no underlying obstructive coronary artery disease.  Psychological stress has also been linked to causing Acute Coronary Syndrome (ACS), which is a collection of symptoms that indicate a heart attack.  High levels of psychological stress are also associated with harmful changes in the blood. Research shows that this stress has the potential to trigger ACS, and it is noted that the episode is most likely to occur immediately following the stressful incident rather than during it. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26590396

How Stress Affects Brain Function: www.nimh.nih.gov and www.nami.org

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Stress affects the brain, particularly the memory, but the effects vary depending on the type and length of stress experienced.

  • Acute Stress: Studies indicate that the immediate effect of acute stress impairs short-term memory, particularly verbal memory, concentration and learning. However, these studies also show that high levels of stress hormones during short term periods are associated with enhanced memory storage, improved memory, and greater concentration on immediate events. The difference lies in how cortisol impacts receptors in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20127868 and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2906860/
  • Chronic Stress: Sufferers often lose concentration at work and home, and become inefficient and accident-prone. Studies connect long-term exposure of stress to excess amounts of cortisol to a shrinking hippocampus – the brain’s memory center.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15240363

How Stress Affects the Gut (Digestive System):

The brain and intestines are closely related. They are controlled by many of the same hormones and parts of the nervous system. Some research suggests that the gut itself has features of a primitive brain. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/06/25/brain-immune-system-connection.aspx

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Chronic stress can disrupt the digestive system, causing many uncomfortable conditions:

  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Cramping
  • Bloating
  • Painful Burning: Caused by excessive production of digestive acids
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome: IBS, or spastic colon, is when the large intestine becomes irritated, and it has spastic muscle contractions. The abdomen remains bloated and both constipation and diarrhea occur.
  • Peptic Ulcers: Caused by H. pylori bacteria or the use of NSAID medications (aspirin and ibuprofen), peptic ulcers can be triggered by stress.
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Stress can be a significant cause in flare ups with IBD.
  • Nausea
  • Stress can also impact what nutrients your digestive tract absorbs, and how fast food moves through your system.

How Stress Affects the Immune System:

Stress leads to an altered immune system. Chronic stress has an effect on the immune system’s response to infections. Studies show that chronic stress leads to low white blood cell counts, making you more susceptible to illness and infection; or once becoming ill, having a worsened condition due to stress.

Sympathetic fibers descend from the brain into both primary (bone marrow and thymus) and secondary (spleen and lymph nodes) lymphoid tissues. These fibers can release a wide variety of substances that influence immune responses by binding to receptors on white blood cells.  When chronic stress is present, the cortisol compromises the immune system, inhibiting histamine secretion and inflammatory response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like influenza and the common cold.   http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361287/#R104

  • Inflammatory Response: Evidence suggests that chronic stress triggers an over-production of cytokines, which are linked to inflammation. (This is connected to heart disease and asthma).

How Stress Affects Overall Health:

In the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America Survey, major causes of stress include work, money, and the economy.  Stress-related unhealthy habits were reported with most people nothing they were overeating due to stress.

  • Weight Gain: Stress is often related to weight gain and obesity; the body craves salt, fat and sugar to counteract tension. (Typically, the weight gain is around the abdomen when linked to stress.)  It has been found that the release of cortisol boosts abdominal fat, and these hormones along with insulin, cause food cravings.

There may be a “reward-based stress eating” model. In this theory, stress and tasty, high-calorie foods cause the brain to make chemicals called endogenous opioids. These neurotransmitters help protect against the harmful effects of stress, slowing activity of a brain process called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, thus weakening the stress response. Repeated stimulation of the reward pathways through stress-induced HPA stimulation, eating tasty food, or both, may lead to changes in the brain that cause compulsive overeating.”  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17543357

  • Eating Disorders: Forms of anorexia and bulimia have been linked to elevated levels of stress hormones and chronic stress.
  • Chronic Pain: Chronic stress can be tied to chronic pain. This then impairs the immune system.
  • Muscular and Joint Pain: Stress may intensify arthritis, back pain and other forms of chronic conditions.
  • Headaches: Tension headaches are closely related to stress. These headaches may not occur until long after the stressor has ended.
  • Sleep: Stress often causes insomnia due to physiological arousal during non-rapid eye movement sleep.
  • Skin: Stress can worsen skin conditions such as hives, psoriasis, acne, rosacea, and eczema.
  • Hair Loss: Localized patches of hair loss, Alopecia areata, is suspected to be linked to stress.
  • Teeth and Gums: Periodontal disease can cause tooth loss and is linked to heart disease. Stress increases the risk of periodontal disease.

Other Resources: