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An Unwell Body: Chronic Stress(ors) All-Around; (Series 2, part 3.B)



Welcome back to my blog series about chronic stress and an unwell body. If you have not read Part A yet, please click here first.


In my last post, I indicated that I might delve a little further into the biology of stress to demonstrate what stress actually does to your body and mind. If you would like to know what happens in your body when stress creeps in, this post is for you. So, let’s get stuck in.  


Before I start, it is important to acknowledge that this blog does not explore extreme stress responses that would get stimulated when facing a threat to life. In such situations where our brain perceives life-threatening experiences, our stress response is even more complex, involving the dorsal branch of the vagus parasympathetic nerve, causing further physiological adjustments. I might explore that another time.


The biology of stress


When your brain recognises a stress stimulus, it activates your sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight system) and stimulates the stress response.


Your endocrine system (your adrenals) receives the message and begins to pump cortisol (commonly known as stress hormone) into your body.


Then the immune system gets alarmed by the increased levels of cortisol and becomes inflamed which in turn lowers your immunity. This stress response is academically and medically known as HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis.


As you can see, stress pushes your central nervous system and your endocrine system into an ‘override’ and causes hormonal havoc. Although, this is a perfectly normal physiological process it can cause significant health implications when activated too often and for a long time.

 

Let me break it down even more and explore the individual elements of the stress response, so you can get closer insight into what happens to you when you get stressed.



Central nervous system under stress


In a happy, calm, and content scenario, your central nervous system predominantly functions in the parasympathetic nervous system (the ventral branch of the vagus nerve) allowing a sense of calm, digestion, healing, and clear cognitive function.


Once your brain catches a sight of potential stressor it ‘switches’ into the sympathetic nervous system, shutting down the chance of all the above.


Digestion stops, healing is put on hold, and your cognitive ability gets impaired which may include your ability to think, speak, or recall memories.


And this is only the start, wait for what the endocrine system adds to the stress party!



Endocrine system under stress


In general, the endocrine system is responsible for releasing hormones into the bloodstream. This includes hormones for growth, development, metabolism, reproduction, and mood.


When the endocrine system gets the memo about stress, it delegates it to the adrenal glands to release the hormone cortisol – ‘the stress hormone’.


When adrenals are under continued and long-term overworking due to excessive cortisol production, it affects the regulation of the other hormones and therefore the body begins to struggle with metabolizing sugar, regulating reproductive and immune functions, and managing mood.


Long-term stress causes then adrenal exhaustion called adrenal fatigue. Sadly, in Western medicine, this adrenal issue is not commonly recognised until the sufferer develops much deeper, and very debilitating challenges known as ME / CFS (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome).


Unfortunately, this functional syndrome still perplexes our National Health System leaving suffers with little or no support. (But there is some help and a great understanding of this in the private field. Watch out for my video interview with a specialist practitioner who regularly treats people who suffer from this condition.)


Immune system under stress


Our central nervous system, as mentioned briefly above, has also a mutual relationship with the immune system. While our nervous system has been responding to long-term stress it consequently weakens our immune system, making it very vulnerable.


You may recognise symptoms such as affected appetite and sleep, and reduced immune responses to disease which can lead to other serious health issues.

 

Stress is a physiological process!


As you can see stress is not (only) in our heads, stress is a deeply physiological process causing countless and endless health risks and problems. This blog does not have the opportunity, or the space to offer all detailed information about the full biology of stress, but I hope it has offered you at least a little insight into the rollercoaster of physiological functions when you get hit by stress.



Join me next time when I speak with other professionals about different ways to heal the body from long-term stress.

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