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Stress, the body and disease

Stress, the body and disease

Stress, the body and disease

Stress is the body’s reaction to harmful situations – whether theyre real or perceived. When you feel threatened, a chemical reaction occurs in your body that allows you to act in a way to prevent injury. This reaction is known as “fight-or-flight” or the stress response. During the stress response, your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises and your bloodstream is flooded with hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. It’s a built-in physiologic response to a threat. It is how you stay alive.

Research shows that almost every system in the body can be influenced by chronic stress. When chronic stress goes unreleased, it suppresses the bodys immune system and ultimately manifests as illness.

Studies have found that there are many health problems related to stress. Stress seems to worsen or increase the risk of conditions like obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma. [1]

What Are the Symptoms of Stress?

Stress can affect all parts of your life, including your emotions, behaviours, thinking ability, and physical health. No part of the body is immune. But, because people handle stress differently, symptoms of stress can vary.

Emotional symptoms of stress include:

  • Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
  • Feeling overwhelmed, as if you are losing control or need to take control
  • Having a hard time relaxing and quieting your mind
  • Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), and feeling lonely, worthless, and depressed
  • Avoiding others

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Low energy
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach, including diarrhoea, constipation, and nausea
  • Aches, pains, and tense muscles
  • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
  • Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ears, and cold or sweaty hands and feet
  • Dry mouth and a hard time swallowing
  • Clenched jaw and grinding teeth

Cognitive symptoms of stress include:

  • Constant worrying
  • Racing thoughts
  • Forgetfulness and disorganisation
  • Inability to focus
  • Poor judgment
  • Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side

Behavioural symptoms of stress include:

  • Changes in appetite – either not eating or eating too much
  • Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
  • More use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
  • Having more nervous behaviours, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing

Work Related Stress

There is a growing concern about the increasing cost and prevalence of stress-related disorders  in relation to work place. Worked to death, drop death, work until you drop” are highlighted work-related death” in the 21st century. [2] Japan and China have been renowned for their long working hours even have a word for death by overwork they are:

Japan: Karoshi

China: Guolaosi

Facts On Work Related Stress [3]

  • Japan and Korea recognise suicide as an official and compensatable work-related condition
  • The estimated prevalence of stress and stress-related conditions in the United Kingdom rose from 829 cases per 100,000 workers in 1990 to 1,700 per 100,000 in 2001/2002. In that year, 13.4 million lost working days were attributed to stress, anxiety or depression, with an estimate 265,000 new cases of stress.
  • The latest HSE (Health and Safety Executive) analysis of self-reported illnesses rate revealed that stress, depression or anxiety affects 1.3% of the workforce
  • It is estimated that 80% to 90% of all industrial accidents are related to personal problem and employeesinability to handle stress
  • The European Agency for Safety and Health at work reported that about 50% of job absenteeism is caused by stress

Diseases Linked To Stress

Heart disease

When you are stressed, your body produces an influx of hormones that cause your heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to narrow. This results in a temporary spike in your blood pressure. When this occurs frequently, damage to your blood vessels, heart and kidneys result. Coronary Heart disease (CHD) has long been regarded as a classical psychosomatic illness in that its onset or course was influenced by a variety of psychosocial variables. Psychosocial aspects of CHD had been studied extensively and there is strong evidence that psychological stress is a significant risk factor for CHD and CHD mortality. [4]


Stress causes higher levels of the hormone cortisol and that seems to increase the amount of fat that’s deposited in the abdomen. Research has also shown that those with persistent high levels of the stress hormone cortisol weighed more, had a higher body mass index (BMI) and a larger waist compared with those who had low levels of the hormone. [5]

A study published in July in Biological Psychiatry, women who had one or more stressful events during the previous 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories in the seven hours following a fast-food meal than women who ate a similar meal but were stress-free. [6]

High Blood Pressure & Diabetes

Consistently high blood sugar levels can wreak havoc on your health, with symptoms including: increased thirst and urination, blurred vision, light-headedness, flushed skin and restlessness. Some studies go so far as to suggest extreme stress can increase your risk of developing diabetes. One found that men with prolonged stress have a 45% higher risk of developing the condition. [7]


Stress is considered one of the most common triggers for headaches and migraines. An occasional tension headache is usually set off by a single stressful event, but if you suffer from chronic stress, you may also get chronic tension headaches. This cycle of pain itself is a big stress factor, and can make the stresses of daily living feel even worse. [8]

Depression and anxiety

It’s probably no surprise that chronic stress is connected with higher rates of depression and anxiety. “One survey of recent studies found that people who had stress related to their jobs – like demanding work with few rewards – had an 80% higher risk of developing depression within a few years than people with lower stress.” [9]

Stress throws several brain neurotransmitter systems; such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine; out of balance, negatively affecting mood, appetite, sleep and libido. Some severely depressed people have permanently elevated cortisol levels, which can eventually alter the hippocampus and permanently damage brain cells. Depression truly is an illness that changes the brain. [10]

Gastrointestinal problems

Stress is a common factor in many GI conditions, such as chronic heartburn (or gastroesophageal reflux disease, GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Alzheimer’s disease

One animal study found that stress might worsen Alzheimer’s disease, causing its brain lesions to form more quickly. In addition, another study found that stressful life experiences (eg. being fired, declaring bankruptcy, death of a parent or financial loss) can each age the brain by around 1.5 years, with age obviously being a contributing factor in the onset of the condition. Some researchers speculate that reducing stress has the potential to slow down the progression of the disease. [11]

Accelerated ageing

There’s actually evidence that stress can affect how you age. A study compared the DNA of mothers who were under high stress — they were caring for a chronically ill child — with women who were not. Researchers found that a particular region of the chromosomes showed the effects of accelerated ageing. Stress seemed to accelerate ageing about 9 to 17 additional years. [12]

Sexual desire & Reproduction

Chronic stress, ongoing stress over an extended period of time, can affect testosterone production resulting in a decline in sex drive or libido, and can even cause erectile dysfunction or impotence.”Chronic stress can also negatively impact sperm production and maturation, causing difficulties in couples who are trying to conceive. Researchers have found that men who experienced two or more stressful life events in the past year had a lower percentage of sperm motility (ability to swim) and a lower percentage of sperm of normal morphology (size and shape), compared with men who did not experience any stressful life events.” [13] Stress can negatively impact a womans ability to conceive, the health of her pregnancy, and her postpartum adjustment.

At-Home Tips for Effective Stress Management

There are both short-term and long-term strategies that are most effective when practiced consistently. These tips are most effective when practiced consistently, they are cost little or are free and accessible for most people. [14]

Get out in the sunlight early

Exposure to morning sunlight profoundly benefits mood, mental health, and overall sleep hygiene. Getting out in the natural light upon waking supports your bodys built-in circadian rhythm, which regulates energy levels, mood, and sleep.

Eat a balanced diet

A poor diet, or one high in processed foods, can bring about a more intense reaction to daily stressors both big and small. Eating a healthy and balanced diet will do wonders.

Practice gratitude

This can help you address negative self-talk patterns that may also be contributing to high chronic stress.

Deliberate Cold Exposure

(cold showers, cold therapy, ice baths, cold plunging, cryotherapy)

While non-conventional, the practice of intentionally exposing the body to very cold (20 degrees C) temperatures for a short period of time may be one of the most cutting edge strategies for improving health and mitigating your physiological response to stress.

It also helps to:

  • Reduce in chronic pain and help with pain management,
  • Increase immune function,
  • Better sleep,
  • Mental, emotional, and physical resilience,
  • Increase energy and focus

Tai chi or yoga

A mind-body practice that helps unify your thoughts and movements by focusing on how you move your body through space. Tai chi has been shown to improve mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, PTSD, and more.

Yoga is another form of movement that has been shown to alleviate stress by decreasing cortisol levels in the body. Yoga also increases serotonin production which makes us feel better overall.

Focus on belly breathing

Your diaphragm is connected to your vagus nerve, which, when stimulated, can promote relaxation in the brain.

Cut out stressors

Set boundaries in your personal life, stick to your routine during trying times, or just reducing the number of commitments on your to-do list.

Also limiting how much you watch the news, how much time you spend online or on your digital devices, limit alcohol intake, and limit your caffeine intake.

Supplements: that may Reduce Stress

Certain vitamins and nutrients can help your body manage a healthy response during stressful times. [16]

  • Magnesium: Helps cells relax and improves mood, sleep, and tension.
  • Vitamin C: Enhances how your body responds to stressful triggers by reducing cortisol levels in the blood. This vitamin also helps strengthen immunity which can weaken during periods of high stress.
  • Fish Oil: Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil have been shown to support a healthy mood.
  • Rhodiola rosea: An Ayurvedic herb traditionally used to improve fatigue and improve mental performance, especially during times of stress.
  • Herbal tea blends: Certain herbs like chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, and passionflower are known for their calming and relaxing effects.
  • Kava kava: A herb thats traditionally used in the South Pacific to boost mood and treat insomnia.
  • Adaptogens: Herbs that help restore balance in the body and promote mental, physical, and emotional resilience.
  • Ashwagandha: An herb used to regulate cortisol levels, improve energy production, and fight inflammation.
  • Holy basil: A type of mint plant found in India thats been shown to lower blood pressure while reducing anxiety symptoms.

If you are experiencing chronic stress, its vital to take some proactive steps toward mitigating its potential effects.

Advanced Functional Medicine can help you building an effective stress management program that fits your individual needs. You can start now with short-term strategies like breathing exercises and mindset changes, as well as long-term strategies like eating a healthy diet and relaxing movements.

We look to identify the root causes of your issues, looking at all aspects of wellness including mental, physiological, emotional health, social relationships, and physical environment.

The above information is intended to be general, educational advice only, on topics which are of interest to us. It is not intended to represent specific or individual health or medical advice and is not specific to your situation. The below information is educative and is not intended to advertise any service.

Before making any decisions in relation to your health, you should always discuss your individual situation with your own health practitioners to ensure that any advice you have read is right for you.

Jarrod Cooper – ND

Jarrod Cooper – ND

Jarrod Cooper - ND is the founder of Advanced Functional Medicine Australia. He is a Naturopathic Doctor with extensive functional medicine training from leading practitioners in the USA and worldwide.

He is leading the way with advancements of functional medicine, clinically implementing worldwide best practices in Functional Medicine throughout Australia.

Jarrod consults in person from Perth, Western Australia and also online via Telehealth throughout Australia and worldwide.

If you are looking for personalised treatment, we highly recommend contacting Jarrod Cooper’s Advanced Functional Medicine clinic in Australia.

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