Your car broke down at night in a bad part of town, and you’re walking on a dark and empty street. You hear footsteps coming up behind you…
Your heart rate speeds up, and blood floods your muscles to prepare you to run for your life.
You’ve probably heard the term “fight or flight” before. What you may not have learned is that it applies to a series of biological reactions that are coordinated by two little pyramid-shaped glands that are perched on top of your kidneys that are known as the adrenal glands. When you feel threatened, your adrenals release hormones including epinephrine (aka adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol which all help to prepare the body for the chase…or the fight if it comes to that. That “stress reaction” works great in life-threatening situations, but when it’s stuck in the “on” position all the time…it can be the source of a wide range of medical problems.
In this article, my team at UpWellness will help you understand how stress affects your physiology and lays out the top tips to help keep your stress levels under control.
When your great, great, great, great…grandfather was being chased by a tiger, the stress hormone cortisol would kick in to allow him to switch into hyperdrive and save his life. This reaction, known as fight or flight, raises the heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar so that people can defend themselves against danger.
While you might not be running away from lions, tigers or bears, you can have the same reaction if, for example, you have to make a quick decision to avoid a collision on the freeway. However, there are many modern world stressors that are not actually life and death, but you seem to always be bombarded – bills, work, relationships, traffic, etc. This constant onslaught of stressful situations causes the sympathetic nervous system to be engaged for a prolonged period. Stress hormones flood the body and cortisol levels (which drop after a real threat has passed) remain high.
Here are five things that happen when you are stuck in a fight or flight response, also known as chronic stress.
Inflammation and cardiovascular disease
Over twenty-five years ago a strong connection was made between stress and heart disease. It has only recently been that researchers have discovered how stress actually impacts the cardiovascular system. Elevated levels of cortisol cause chronic inflammation in the lining of the blood vessels. This inflammation causes damage to artery walls and causes cholesterol-rich deposits to narrow arteries leading to heart disease and strokes. This type of inflammation explains why one-third of patients with heart disease don’t have other risk factors such as obesity or high cholesterol.
Weak immune function
Chronic stress reduces the immune system’s ability to defend against infection. One study looked at chronic stress in elderly persons caring for people with dementia. Researchers compared responses between two groups – those who were caring for someone and those who were not. What they discovered was that chronic stress severely depressed the immune system in the caregiver group. Interestingly enough, when caregivers practiced relaxation techniques, their cortisol levels dropped, and their immune system rebounded.
Memory loss and cognitive impairment
Tests can be stressful, that is a fact. Have you ever studied for a test and then forgotten information when taking the test? Test nerves can cause cortisol to skyrocket which impairs both memory and reasoning. Researchers investigated this effect by giving one group of volunteers cortisol at a dose similar to emotional stress and another group a dummy pill. As expected, those who took the cortisol pill did not perform nearly as well on the memory test as the group that took the placebo pill. Additional research out of McGill University in Canada shows that cortisol shrinks the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for memory.
Higher cortisol levels mean more psychological arousal which can disrupt sleep and lead to chronic insomnia. When researchers examined cortisol levels in persons suffering from chronic insomnia compared to those who slept well, it was found that the sleepless group has elevated levels of cortisol. In another study, persons with chronic insomnia were given medication to reduce cortisol, and their sleep improved dramatically.
Excess abdominal fat is associated with an increased risk of liver disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Cortisol increases the risk of abdominal fat. Although it is not known exactly why cortisol causes bellies to swell, it is thought that maybe the stress hormone cortisol impairs when it comes to food choice and portion control. Cortisol definitely increases appetite which in turn can lead to abdominal fat.
That’s not all
High levels of cortisol associated with chronic stress are also connected to an increased risk of depression, heartburn, and sexual difficulties. Stress is also known to exacerbate pain, acne, hives, ulcers, irritable bowel, Chron’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and eczema.
What can be done?
Getting a handle on cortisol levels means getting a handle on stress. Here are just a few ways that you can learn to relax a bit, let down and lower your stress hormone levels.
- Practice deep breathing
- Practice yoga
- Listen to music
- Take time for yourself daily
- Don’t sweat the small stuff
- Spend quality time with friends and family
- Don’t marry your job
- Take a walk in nature
- Take a break from electronics daily
-The UpWellness Team