The Process of Stress

 When the brain perceives a stressful event, it responds by stimulating hormonal glands throughout the body to release hormones. Adrenaline and cortisol are two of these hormones. Adrenaline causes that excited feeling, and cortisol is responsible for how our body uses various fuel sources. When stress happens it knocks our body out of balance and the body responds accordingly to get back into balance. There are three phases of stress according to a scientist named Hans Selye, the alarm phase, the resistance phase and overload. The first and second phases are quite normal, stress happens and the body reacts immediately (alarm phase), then the more long- term phase of resistance comes in to bring us back into balance after the all of the changes occurred in response to the stressor. The problems arise when we ask our body to react too often (too much alarm) or with excessive exuberance (too much resistance), both scenarios end with us having high cortisol levels (overload). So when we are constantly stressed we have high cortisol levels all the time and that is not good for us. The body was meant to react to the stress and then get back to normal, not stay in a constant state of stress. When we are in a state of chronic stress (overload) is when the bodily systems start to break down and we are at risk for chronic disease.

 During acute stress the body mobilizes the body’s energy reserves, releases adrenalin and cortisol and decreases secretions of DHEA and testosterone. The heart beats faster, the blood pressure rises, and you experience an increased breathing rate due to the natural reactions to stress. You may start sweating and the body temperature increases, you may feel anxious or nervous. Some get headaches, heartburn, and irritability all due to the hormones and neurotransmitters raging through your body. In the caveman days you either fought your opponent or ran like hell and this used up all of that stuff going on in your body and you returned to a normal state. Chronic stress is caused by insufficient adaptation to all of the reactions the body goes through in acute stress. Today we tend to just let all of this accumulate and that is when an acute stressor becomes a chronic stressor. If we were to exercise when we are in the acute stressor stage and use up all of that energy we would not go into the chronic stage, however most of us don’t do that. When an acute stressor becomes a chronic stressor, the cortisol levels increase and the DHEA level continue to drop. This dual effect causes fat gain and muscle loss, and can be detrimental to bone and body tissues. Symptoms associated with chronic stress are weight gain, fatigue, elevated blood sugar, increased appetite, carbohydrate craving (such as sugar and refined white flour foods), muscle weakness, a lower sex drive, and reduced immune-system functioning. In the later stages the person is in a vicious cycle of increased appetite, reduced caloric expenditure, and accelerated fat accumulation.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal glands in response to stress. Cortisol can be a good hormone or a bad hormone. Cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day normally being higher in the morning and less at night. There normal levels can be affected by physical and emotional stress, lack of sleep and various illnesses. Cortisols good side is it’s diverse and highly important effects on regulating aspects of all parts of the body’s metabolism of glucose, protein, and fatty acids. Cortisol controls mood and sense of well-being, immune cells and inflammation, blood vessels and blood pressure, and the maintenance of connective tissues such as bones, muscles and skin. Cortisol is also known to stimulate several metabolic processes that collectively serve to increase concentrations of glucose in the blood. Under normal conditions of stress cortisol maintains blood pressure and limits excessive inflammation. When too much cortisol is secreted or secreted to often to build up in the body complications can arise. There is very good scientific and medical evidence to show that chronically elevated levels of cortisol are associated with obesity, hypertension, diabetes, fatigue, depression, moodiness, irregular menstrual periods, decreased sex drive, and Alzheimer’s disease. As high cortisol levels persist things get worse characterized by widespread tissue destruction and system breakdown, such as muscle loss, bone loss, immune suppression and brain shrinkage.

Stress related diseases occur because of an excessive activation of the stress response in the brain and in the endocrine (hormone) system to common, everyday sources of physical and psychological stress. Unfortunately in our fast paced world, we have plenty of stressors to react to and if that is not enough our brains are so developed that we can react to imagined stress as well. When we undergo prolonged stress, the natural responses that take place can lead to disease. Blood sugar levels increase as a stress response and the body’s cells stop storing insulin. Telling the body’s cells to ignore insulin for extended periods of time, as happens in chronic stress, can lead to a condition known as insulin resistance, and predispose a person to diabetes. Chronic stress causes weight gain due to the excessive cortisol and low DHEA levels which in turn cause the body to store fat, lose muscle, slow the metabolic rate and increase appetite. Weight gain also predisposes you to diabetes, and when you are chronically stressed that clearly leads to overeating. This can be a vicious circle, which then also brings on other degenerative diseases. The elevated blood pressure that is a natural stress response along with the blood sugar issues can in turn lead to cardiovascular disease, especially if you are gaining weight and overeating unhealthy foods.

The diet can have a lot to due with stress. Caffeine, alcohol, sugar and refined carbohydrates, along with unknown food allergies can affect your stress response. Potassium is a key dietary recommendation for supporting the adrenal glands where cortisol is produced. Also vitamin C, pantothenic acid (a B vitamin), vitamin B6, zinc and magnesium all support the adrenal glands. Too much sodium (salt), along with too little potassium can stress the kidneys and cause high blood pressure, so it is important to keep a good sodium to potassium ratio. Some supplements designed to help you lose weight can raise cortisol levels and actually make it harder for you to lose weight. Eating a balanced diet of proteins, good carbohydrates, and fats along with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients can go a long way in reducing stress. When your body has the nutrients it needs to produce hormones and to function properly you are alleviating stress on your organs and systems so that they can better deal with your other stresses. Lots of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, healthy fats, lean meats, nuts and seeds, legumes and fish provide the nutrients that your body needs to deal with stress. B vitamins, vitamin C and other antioxidants, zinc, calcium and magnesium are all good anti-stress nutrients. There are many supplements specifically designed to support your adrenal glands and calm the body and mind.


Submitted by Tricia @ Nutrition by Tricia




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