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Stress and its impacts: How does stress physically present in our bodies?

Written by Sarah Kirley | Tuesday, 29 March 2022


While stress is a very natural response, there are a number of impacts it can have on your overall wellbeing. Current Naturopath student Sarah Kirley shares the first of her three-part series exploring stress and the various impacts it can have.

We all know that stress is bad and affects our health, but did you know the stress response can also impact your:

  • Immune system
  • Digestive system
  • Reproductive system

This means that the stress and anxiety you experience ahead of a big event, or when you are trying to fall pregnant, can be a massive obstacle for your goals.

Why is this the case? Scientists have found the pathways used in the stress response needs to shut down certain processes to cope with the potential danger, even if you aren’t in actual danger. However, underestimating stress because there is no immediate physical threat can be harmful.

On a very basic level, stress is a chemical disruption of homeostasis. Something as simple as the traffic being frustrating or kids crying could trigger a massive internal chemical cascade that activates both the endocrine and nervous systems to react as if something dangerous is about to happen.

Let’s break it down a little further.

The part of the brain called the amygdala (let’s call her Amy) gets the stress signal and interprets it. Because Amy doesn't exactly see the difference between the stress that comes from – let’s say – a bear about to attack us and the annoying driver that just cut us off, she "just in case" sends a message to another area of the brain – the hypothalamus (I like the name Harry).

Harry goes ahead and tells Nancy (the nervous system) who is best friends with Adrien (our adrenal glands). Adrien is the biggest gossip in town, so spreads this news all around (this "gossip" is epinephrine).

As most of us are aware, gossip spreads fast – as does this group of molecules epinephrine which then invades the “ears” of each unsuspecting member of our town (our cells), who all begin preparation for this bear to come in and start tearing the place down!

How can stress symptoms present?

  • Heart throbbing
  • Palms sweating
  • The whole body can begin warming up
  • Maybe even sweating (I dare you not to wear deodorant for a day to test if you’re stressed).

Our bodies can also release natural pain killers, like our own little internal stash of opioids, for the sake of survival. Though these wonderful molecules mean we don’t feel the pain in the moment, it can also result in pushing our bodies way beyond what we are normally capable of. We can also become more and more addicted to this strange but euphoric sensation “stress” and wonder why we finally cannot cope anymore once these opioid stores are depleted.

Ever had those unexplained grumps or random moments of tension?

Going back to our town, our "town members" (cells) begin to build up their stocks to get their food ready for use (cells release the glucose), store up the extra water, and restrict our sleep schedules because the bear is going to hit town any minute! We have to be ready!

So, in our bodies, this can look like:

  • Excess fluid
  • Bloating and digestive problems
  • Unexplainable weight gain/loss
  • All the moods (depressive episodes, increased anxiety, intense fluctuations, etc.)
  • Fatigue
  • Skin issues

This doesn't really go away unless we can communicate that the "gossip" was false or unnecessary. This means engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and relaxing with rest. Even then, the effects (cortisol) linger like doubt looming over the truth when we've heard some juicy gossip.

Now this isn't a big deal when it happens once or maybe twice but when it begins happening on a regular basis... Like on the daily...? Anyone else guilty?

Long term effects can look a little more serious:

  • Heart issues
  • Digestive diseases
  • Obesity (due to digestive disruptions)

Overuse of what should be “only in an emergency” store houses and the body can start to permanently be altered. Pulling apart structures to reinforce others that are considered more “important” at the time. Like who needs a dinner table if the door needs to be barricaded, right?

When these stressors become the norm, the effects on all the different systems of the body can be really tough and result in extreme inflammation.

So now that we have covered what this looks like, let’s look at why disease can result due to chronic or ongoing episodes of stress by diving deeper into the natural perspective of inflammation in our next blog.

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Sarah Kirley

Sarah Kirley is a current Naturopathy student at Endeavour College. She has a particular interest in stress, inflammation, and chronic, especially in women and new mothers.

Read more by Sarah Kirley