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Stress: Part 1

The World Health Organisation has stated that stress is the health epidemic of the 21st century. It has become an endemic part of our daily lives to the point that we may no longer notice it. Most of us are also unaware of the harm it is doing to us and that it is behind the majority of symptoms and diseases that afflict us today.

In this series I will outline the different types of stress, how stress has turned from being something that is beneficial (even life-saving) to its current harmful nature, why some people are more affected by stress than others, what symptoms and diseases can be caused, worsened or mediated by stress and, lastly, what steps you can take to ameliorate its harmful effects on you.

Generally when we say ‘stress’, we mean emotional or psychological stress, and that is the type we shall focus on most here. However it is important to bear in mind that there are actually many types of stress and the body reacts to them all in the same way. So if you are experiencing the harmful effects of stress and yet don’t feel ‘stressed’, consider these other types: physical trauma, infection, inflammation, disease, being overweight or obese, insulin resistance, hormone imbalances (oestrogen dominance), extreme heat/cold, pollution, any kind of ingested toxin eg alcohol or smoking, intense exercise, and extreme mental anxiety. There are many others but I think you are now getting the idea. Each of these will trigger the body’s stress response, and you can of course have more than one occurring at a time. It may also be the accumulation of mini-stresses i.e. all the little things that slightly stress us, like the delayed train that made us late for work. As these build up throughout the day, at some point (unique to each person) they reach a threshold and our stress response is triggered.

So, let’s look at the body’s stress response. We must first distinguish between acute and chronic stress. Acute stress is otherwise known as ‘fight or flight’. This response can be life-saving, and is usually beneficial. Stress is not always bad! We’ve all experienced those moments when under heightened stress, our cognitive function and performance has been sharpened. There’s nothing wrong with that and our bodies are designed to cope with acute stress.

It is important to understand what happens in the body when the stress response is activated as it helps to explain why it becomes harmful with chronic activation.

Firstly, the sympathetic nervous system is activated which releases adrenaline and noradrenaline (or epinephrine and norepinephrine) and levels of the hormone cortisol rise. You experience enhanced vigilance, alertness, arousal and cognition. Your blood pressure rises, so do your heart and respiratory rates. Your body increases its glucose production and mobilisation to provide you with more energy. In balance, your body also down-regulates certain functions which it considers are less important in this ‘life-saving’ mode and your immunity, appetite, digestion, growth, reproduction and colonic motility are all reduced.

Once the acute stress has passed, the body returns to normal. It is designed as a short-lived response.

Olivia Smart


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