• Dr. Allissa Gaul

UNDERSTANDING STRESS AND HEALTH


STRESS. What do you do when you hear or see that word? Do your shoulders tense? Does your stomach tie itself in knots? Or do you roll your eyes thinking “here they go again”? Stress is a huge topic and we hear about it all the time. Experts claim that up to 90% of doctor’s visits involve stress-related complaints. We know that too much stress can have negative effects on our health and yet we often glaze over it and paint it with that “it’s just psychosomatic” brush. So what exactly is stress and how does it impact our health?

The medical dictionary defines stress as “an organism's total response to environmental demands or pressures.” So in plain words, stress is your body’s response to a challenge. Clearly, this can be a good thing. If a bear is chasing you in the woods and your stress response allows you to run faster, that is probably in your best interest. The branch of our autonomic nervous system, called the sympathetic nervous system, becomes very active during a stress response. When this system is active adrenalin races through our veins and more blood is pumped into our arms and legs instead of our digestive tracts, our pupils dilate and our hearts beat faster. This allows us to be faster and stronger, see better, and be able to supply more oxygen and nutrients to our brain and muscles. It also means that in this state basic functions, like digesting our food properly and sleeping, go by the way side.

When we perceive a stressor, a part of our brain called the hypothalamus releases several hormones. One of these hormones is called corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH goes to a gland in the brain called the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is often referred to as the master gland because of its important role in balancing our body’s hormones. The pituitary gland responds to CRH by releasing adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone acts on the adrenal glands which in turn produce stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline).

The interesting thing about stress is that the body does not necessarily distinguish between different types of stress. Your body will produce the same hormones when faced with a bear in the woods as when you answer your mother-in-law’s phone call. Even what we would consider “good events”, like winning the lottery and moving to the Bahamas, would induce the same stress response as a “bad event”, like the passing of a loved one, because of the amount of change it introduces to our system. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter whether the stressor is “real” or not. The entire response is based on our perception. So, if we perceive something to be stressful, our bodies will produce real stress hormones. Quite often these perceptions are on a subconscious level and we don’t even realize that we are perceiving a stressor. Our bodies, however, will be showing signs of stress and it may take an increased self-awareness on our part to correctly identify the stressor.

When we are unable to identify or change our stressors we are likely to experience chronic stress. While high cortisol levels can help us out in the short term, the long term effects of high cortisol such as decreased immunity, decreased bone production and increased blood sugar levels, are not good for our health. Consequently, we end up with the statistics like the one at the beginning of this article, that 90% of doctor’s visits are stress related.

The good news is that there are a lot of things we can do to help balance our nervous systems and our stress response. Herbal medicine, exercise, meditation and proper diet are all beneficial for managing stress. Check out our website, Facebook page and blog and stay tuned for more details and techniques on how to manage stress, or book an appointment to chat with us about your specific situation!

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