Health is much more than drinking green juices and hitting the gym. If you never catch your breath, wake up feeling tired, anxious, emotionally drained, and can’t rid stubborn abdominal fat, chances are you’re chronically stressed.
Not all stress is bad. Good stress is our best friend, spurring us into action and saving our lives in acute fight-or-flight situations. It helps us when we need to perform our best.
But our body doesn’t differentiate between good and bad stress: it can only respond in one way. It’s the chronic stress and our body’s natural, evolutionary response that’s causing all sorts of health problems, including weight gain.
Don’t worry just yet; you’ve come to the right place. Let us help you understand everything you need to know about stress and what you can do to reverse its effects. We’ll guide you through it!
So, What Exactly Is Stress?
Much more than an emotion, stress is a hard-wired physical response travelling throughout your entire body. An acute stress reaction instantly activates our HPA-axis while our body quickly releases Cortisol and Adrenaline. These hormones urge our lungs to quickly pump oxygen into the blood stream, raising our heartbeat and blood pressure to deliver the energy we’d need to escape the stressor.
Stress requires so much energy that the body puts all other things hold. You stop repairing your tissue. You stop renewing your cells.
Now, if our ancestors would escape a lion, they’d return to their daily activities, and their acute stress response would shut down.
But nowadays, we’re living in a world with an overdose of non-stop psychological and social stress. We worry about our jobs, arguments at home, upcoming tax bills, annoying colleagues, traffic jams, mortgage, the health of our loved ones, unanswered emails and climate change.
In addition to that, we are collectively overworked, trying to get more done than we’ve got time for while constantly blurring the line between private and professional spheres with our mobile gadgets.
As a consequence, we consume more sugar than ever before, and live in an overwhelming information age that we can’t properly deal with.
This chronic stress is the evil kind of stress but triggers the exact same primitive fight-or-flight response in our bodies as running from a lion! No matter if good or bad; our bodies know only one way to respond to stress.
It’s All About Energy
Chronic stress kicks our natural energy distribution out of balance.
Let’s say you are stressed over the course of three months. That means your immune system will steal energy from other systems for three months to feed your innate survival fight-or-flight response. All so that it has enough fuel to feed your muscles, heart and breathing until you ‘escape’ your stressor.
Your body will basically think it’s running from a lion for 3 months.
There’ll be no energy left for other essential systems – such as your digestion and reproduction – which is why chronic stress leaves you to feel irritable, forgetful, overwhelmed, isolated and sleep deprived.
Ideally, your immune system only awakes for an acute stressor and isn’t in constant action during the day. Unfortunately, nowadays we shoot in stress mode too often and too long for our bodies to handle. During those typically long episodes of stress, our energy distribution is completely thrown off, resulting in all types of health problems.
What Does Stress Do With Our Bodies?
Our bodies aren’t evolutionary prepared to deal with the relatively unfamiliar stressors of modern life. In fact, our human DNA only changes 0.1% every 10.000 years. We haven’t been able to genetically adapt to the circumstances we’ve created since the industrial revolution.
1. Chronic Stress Makes It Impossible To Lose Weight
The stress hormone Cortisol increases your appetite because of the body’s extra need for energy, but also because a stressed body can only run on sugar and metabolise carbohydrates to get energy.
During a stress reaction, Cortisol increases your blood pressure and together with Adrenaline helps accelerate your heartbeat and breathing. This sends glucose to the blood to help free up enough energy for the muscles and the brain. Consequently, a fuel shortage arises, and sugar guarantees a quick energy fix, making us excessively crave sweet foods.
Over the last 50-100 years, a lot of new stress stimuli entered our lives, making it almost impossible for our brains to get enough glucose (sugar) to deal with all these stressors and process them. Our Western civilisation adapted to this, offering carbohydrate and sugar-rich foods wherever we go. Comfort foods and drinks have become the quickest solution to our stress-related energy dips.
Exhausting Your Insulin Factory…
You need insulin to get glucose (sugar) out of your blood and into your cells. Unfortunately, stress hormones make it difficult for your pancreas to secrete insulin. But it gets worse: the overload of sugar (that you consume to make up for the energy shortage during a chronic stress reaction), makes your pancreas hyperactive. Over time this hyperactivity disturbs your cells in the pancreas to such a degree that it won’t be able to produce sufficient insulin anymore.
Bye, Bye, Fat Burning…
As long as you are stressed, burning fat becomes almost impossible. So you can run that treadmill all you want, but if that only causes an even higher cortisol production, it will only make you gain. That’s because your cells need oxygen to be able to metabolise fat into energy. Unfortunately, stress keeps oxygen from reaching your cells, leaving you dependent on carbohydrates for your energy. Hello, sugar cravings!
It’s therefore not a coincidence that fast food chains, soft drink companies and vending machines have boomed since the eighties when the developed world saw steep economic growth. Corporate culture and its eat-or-be-eaten attitude became glamorised, altogether spiking our stress levels to new, unfamiliar heights.
Done with stress? Get more CALM with our free guide to more peace in everyday life here.
2. Chronic Stress Shrinks Our Brains
The impact of stress stretches beyond the shape of your body. Neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, recently found that chronic stress triggers long-term changes in brain structure and function.
High levels of cortisol over long periods of time wreak havoc on your brain literally causing it to shrink in size!
Chronic stress shrinks your pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for regulating behaviours like concentration, decision-making, judgement and social interaction. It also kills, shrinks and causes loss of synaptic connections between neurones in the hippocampus, the part of your brain that is vital for learning, memory and stress control.
When the hippocampus weakens, so does your ability to manage stress, as well as to learn and remember things. Shockingly, chronic stress eventually sets the stage for more severe mental problems, like depression and eventually Alzheimer’s disease.
3. Chronic Stress Makes Us Sick
A chronic stress response not only changes your brain but also damages many of the other organs and cells throughout your body. It lowers immune function, disrupting the body’s ability to heal itself, making it vulnerable to infections.
The Adrenaline pushes your heart to beat faster and heightens your blood pressure. Too much of it eventually results in hypertension. At the same time, an overdose of cortisol disrupts the function of your artery walls, one of the contributing factors of cholesterol plaque in the arteries and even arteriosclerosis. These two processes combined become a ticking heart-attack-and-stroke time-bomb.
Chronic stress also disrupts your intestinal nervous system, which is responsible for moving food through your gut, leading to irritable bowel syndrome. It can also increase your gut sensitivity to acid, making you more prone to heartburn. Stress even negatively affects the quality of your gut bacteria, upsetting your digestion and leading to poor overall health.
Most alarming though is that cortisol makes us store a dangerous ‘visceral’ fat layer around our organs. Visceral fat increases the production of your immune system’s ‘cytokines’, which further increases your risk of developing chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance.
Stress even accelerates the ageing process by shortening telomeres (the ends of our chromosomes). Telomeres are responsible for the preservation of your genetic code during cell division. With each cell division, the telomeres get shorter which is why we naturally age. But when telomeres become too short too quickly, a cell can no longer divide and dies, resulting in accelerated ageing.
Other health problems linked to chronic stress are anxiety, ulcers in the stomach, headaches, acne, hair loss, sexual dysfunction, fatigue and irritability.
Start Reversing The Effects Of Chronic Stress
There’s no need to get stressed about being stressed! There are many ways to reverse the effects of chronic stress! Of course, life will always keep throwing challenging situations at you, but what matters is how you cope with them.
We highly encourage to start valuing stress reduction in everyday life; it’ll change your life in all sorts of positive ways. And think of it this way:
You cannot be there for your loved ones, team or clients, if you don’t put on your own oxygen mask first.
Now the extremely stressed-out bees always tell me: “I ain’t got no time for that! Relieving my stress is a luxury I can’t afford!”
My answer to those of you is the following: You’re of no use to this world when you’re burned out, depressed, in a constant state of anxiety, and when you lose your health.
The Most Powerful Stress-Busting Tools:
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Now I’d love to hear from you. What’s the single biggest obstacle standing in the way of your stress relief? What action can you take today to overcome that hurdle?
Your beautiful fellow go-getters and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. What you’ve got to say may help and inspire others to embrace self-care too!
Also, when you know someone who needs to hear about the effects of stress and how to reverse it – forward this to them right away.
Love, I’m so grateful to have you here with us!
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Bergland, C. (2014, 12 February 2014). Chronic Stress Can Damage Brain Structure and Connectivity. [Weblog]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201402/chronic-stress-can-damage-brain-structure-and-connectivity
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