What Is Stress?
When we talk about stress, we are referring to the feeling of being overwhelmed due to mental and emotional pressure. When you feel threatened, a chemical reaction happens in your body that allows you to behave in a way that will prevent injury. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone and it increases glucose in the bloodstream, which enhances the brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. This reaction is known as “fight-or=flight.” If your body is responding stressfully, your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises.
Stress is completely normal and leads to feelings of emotional and physical tension. Stress is a normal part of life, but it can also take a serious toll on your life. More than half of Americans say they fight with family and loved ones because of stress, and more than 70% say they experience physical and emotional symptoms due to stress. Some of the most common causes of stress include problems involving money, stress, and poor health.
Not only can stress be caused by poor health, but it can be a vicious cycle that actually worsens your health. If you are consistently under stress, it might start to manifest as physical symptoms. This includes headaches, high blood pressure, chest pain, problems with sex, and sleeping problems. Stress can also lead to emotional troubles, like depression, panic attacks, and other forms of anxiety. These issues are no coincidence; they are a reflection of the toll stress is taking on your body.
How Does Stress Affect Your Body Systems?
The reason you experience so many symptoms as a result of stress is because stress affects so many of the body’s systems, from your central nervous and endocrine systems to your respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive, muscular, reproductive, and immune systems. First and foremost, your central nervous system is in charge of your “fight or flight” response.
During a stress response, the hypothalamus tells the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones increase the heartbeat and send blood to the areas that need it, like the muscles, heart, and other important organs. When the fearful situation is gone, the hypothalamus should communicate with the systems that it is time to return to normal. However, if the CNS cannot return to normal or the stressor does not subside, the response will continue.
In terms of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, stress hormones affect them as well. During a stress response, the individual breathes faster in an attempt to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood throughout the body.
The digestive system also takes a hit as well. Under stress, the liver produces additional blood sugar for a boost of energy. If you are constantly stressed, your body might have difficulty keeping up with this additional glucose, which is why chronic stress can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The physical effects that come along with stress, such as a hormone rush, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate, can negatively impact the digestive system. For example, stress is likely to give you heartburn and acid reflux because of an increase in stomach acid. It can also change the way food moves through the body, leading to diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, or a stomachache.
When you are under stress, the muscles tend to tense up to protect themselves from injury, which is why stress affects the muscular system. While the muscles will release eventually, they might not get the chance to relax if you are constantly under stress. This is a problem because tight muscles can lead to headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches.
One effect of stress that many find shocking is the way that it can affect one’s sexuality and reproductive system. Short-term stress can cause men to produce more of the male hormone testosterone, but this is a temporary effect. If stress continues, the man’s testosterone levels will begin to drop, which interferes with sperm production and can lead to erectile dysfunction. For women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle and lead to more painful periods.
What is not so surprising is the way stress impacts the immune system. Stress stimulates the immune system, which is designed to be a positive effect in the short-term. However, as time goes on, stress hormones will weaken the immune system and reduce the body’s response to foreign invaders. Those under chronic stress are more vulnerable to viral illnesses like the flu and common cold, and those under frequent stress might take more time to recover from an illness or injury.
Can Stress Cause You to Gain Weight?
Stress can significantly affect your ability to maintain a healthy weight, and it can prevent you from losing weight. Research has shown that rises in the stress hormone called cortisol can lead to weight gain. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy. It also stimulates insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels, which can lead to an increase in appetite and cravings for sweet, salty, high-fat foods. When you eat sugar, the energy is stored in the form of abdominal fat in stressful situations. Cortisol also slows down the metabolism, so even if you are not eating sugary foods, it can be difficult to lose weight.
In addition to the way stress affects the body, it also creates unhealthy habits that can lead to weight gain, such as emotional eating, eating “accessible” or fast food, exercising less, skipping meals, and sleeping less. Making it a priority to engage in a healthy lifestyle despite your surroundings will help you combat the physical symptoms of stress. Prioritizing exercise, healthier comfort foods, and establishing healthy coping mechanisms will help prevent stress from affecting the systems in your body and causing undesired weight gain.
Need some extra assistance managing your weight? Call Soza Weight Loss at (504) 475-9817 or contact us online to find out how we can help you establish healthy habits to get your stress and weight under control.