Stress is a part of everyday life. However, when your body is subject to continuous stress, it can develop into a chronic state of inflammation which with time, yields adverse affects on your health. Ongoing stress can in fact increase your risk of suffering from anxiety and other diseases including but not limited to high blood pressure, cardiovascular complications, dementia, autoimmune diseases, depression and certain types of cancer.
When encountering a stressful situation, the body responds as if in danger and the brain sends a message to produce hormones called cortisol which are responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Your heart rate increases, you breathe faster and you get a sudden burst of energy. This response is favorable for a short period of time, but can be detrimental to your health if it continues on an ongoing basis.
The cardiovascular system is comprised of two elements that work together to provide oxygen and sustenance to the organs of the body, namely the heart and blood vessels. Acute and chronic levels of stress both have an adverse affect on the cardiovascular system. Acute stress, which is short-lived such as slamming on brakes to avoid an accident, accomplishing a work deadline or being anxious about being late for an appointment, activates the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol which causes the heart rate and heart muscle contractions to increase. Additionally, the blood vessels that supply blood to the large muscles and the heart, dilate which results in an increased flow of blood to these parts of the body. This is known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction. Once the acute stress period has passed, the body returns to its normal state.
Chronic and constant stress experienced over an extended period of time can damage your cardiovascular system and contribute to long-term health problems, especially for the heart and blood vessels. Continuous stress, elevated hormone and blood pressure levels as well as an increased heart rate, an irregular heartbeat or an arrhythmia (an abnormal heart rhythm), takes a toll on the body and increases the risk of developing hypertension and experiencing a heart attack or a stroke. Repeated and ongoing acute and chronic stress may also contribute to inflammation in the circulatory system, especially the coronary arteries, which can also result in a heart attack.
The risk of developing heart disease in women seems to differ between premenopausal and postmenopausal women. Elevated estrogen levels in premenopausal women seems to facilitate stress coping skills by helping blood vessels respond better to stress and protecting against heart disease. Postmenopausal women have lower levels of estrogen, thereby putting them at a greater risk for the effects of stress on the cardiovascular system.
Stress not only affects the cardiovascular system, but also can affect the GI tract and digestion as well. Digestion is controlled by the eccentric nervous system which is composed of millions of nerves that communicate with the central nervous system. When the body is stressed and shifts into ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, blood flow is restricted affecting the digestive muscles, decreasing the secretion of digestive juices and causing digestion to shut down. Alternatively, stress can increase acid production in the stomach and lead to heartburn and gastro esophageal reflux.
Stress can cause inflammation and make you more susceptible to diseases and infections. Chronic, ongoing stress can also prompt the onset of certain diseases caused by inflammation. Other autoimmune diseases that sometimes are dormant can be triggered by stress into full-blown diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis and chronic skin conditions, amongst others.
The brain is not impervious to the effects of stress. Neurotransmitters in the brain called serotonin and dopamine are renewed on a daily basis, but stress can reduce their production and leave you feeling depressed and more prone to addictions and anxiety. Chronic stress can also make you more emotional and forgetful and puts you at an added risk for developing brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Often when someone is stressed they either turn to harmful habits to counteract the anxiety, such as smoking, drinking alcohol or taking drugs, or comfort foods such as pizza, pies and ice-cream. These high-fat cholesterol foods and other bad habits, have a damaging effect on the arteries and heart.
Identifying the cause of your stress is key in finding a solution to managing the stress in your life. Maintaining a balance in today’s stressful world requires a number of lifestyle changes including but not limited to eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting enough sleep and taking supplements. These are just a few ways to jumpstart the process to help support the body’s natural adaptive abilities. More intense stress relieving exercises such as yoga, tai chi and meditation should be adopted to counteract the potentially damaging effects of stress.
Diet – Eating a healthy diet by incorporating whole grains, legumes and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables is vital to building up your strength and keeping your weight down. Reduce the intake of sugar, processed foods and alcohol which have an adverse effect on your health. Make sure you sit down when eating to help you relax and destress.
Exercise – When you exercise, the body releases endorphins which contributes to a more positive attitude and a “feel good” feeling. Regular exercise can reduce the effects of mild depression and anxiety and improve your sleep. It is an excellent stress reliever as it helps reduce tension and anxiety through movement and physical activity, replacing these feelings with calm, optimism and positive energy.
Sleep – A healthy diet and exercise alone are not enough to counteract the effects of stress. It is important to get enough sleep – about 8 hours a night to relax the body and mind. If it is difficult to settle down at night and fall into a deep sleep, try listening to relaxing music, read a good book or take a warm bath before bed.
Meditation (Yoga / Tai Chi ) – Meditation helps restore inner calm and peace. Meditating doesn’t take much time and it clears away your information overload that clouds your mind and adds to your stress. It help you focus on the present and helps you gain a new perspective on stressful situations.
It is imperative to proactively take care of your body and mind by reducing stress in your life and thereby slow down the aging process. By incorporating these life changes into your everyday routine, it can help reduce your stress levels and risk of developing more serious illnesses including cardiovascular disease.
Look for the release of our new book on Remaining in the Parasympathetic Mode, due out soon.