Systems Affected by Stress
Chronic stress, or a constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body.Emotional and physical stresses have a negative impact on the heart and the vascular system. Acute stress happens all at once; chronic stress occurs over a longer time period. Stress hormones (catecholamines, including epinephrine, which is also known as adrenaline) have damaging effects if the heart is exposed to elevated catecholamine levels for a long time. Stress can cause increased oxygen demand on the body, spasm of the coronary (heart) blood vessels, and electrical instability in the heart's conduction system. Chronic stress has been shown to increase the heart rate and blood pressure, making the heart work harder to produce the blood flow needed for bodily functions. Long-term elevations in blood pressure, also seen with essential hypertension (high blood pressure not related to stress), are harmful and can lead to myocardial infarction (heart attack), heart failure, abnormal heart rhythms, and stroke.
Respiratory System is a series of organs responsible for taking in oxygen and getting rid of carbon dioxide.
The Respiratory System responds to stress by speeding up to get more oxygen into the body. Oxygen is needed to keep muscles working. Increased breathing supplies the body with enough oxygen to fuel muscles and make it through stress. When the body starts rapidly breathing, hyperventilation may occur. Rapid breathing may cause panic attacks in some people. To cope with stress, the body goes into "Fight or Flight" mode. This is caused by a hormone called adrenaline. Too much stress can trigger an asthma attack. During an attack, you might feel short of breath, anxiety, and even panicked.
Constant stress can increase the likelihood of you getting sick. Stress can worsen the symptoms of asthma and chronic lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
Stress can affect every part of the digestive system. Digestion is controlled by the enteric nervous system, a system composed of hundreds of millions of nerves that communicate with the central nervous system. When stress activates the "flight or fight" response in your central nervous system, digestion can shut down because your central nervous system shuts down blood flow, affects the contractions of your digestive muscles, and decreases secretions needed for digestion. Stress can cause inflammation of the gastrointestinal system, and make you more susceptible to infection.
Stress can cause your esophagus to go into spasms. It can increase the acid in your stomach causing indigestion. Under stress, the mill in your stomach can shut down and make you feel nauseous. Stress can cause your colon to react in a way that gives you diarrhea or constipation. We are all familiar with the athlete or the student who has to rush to the bathroom before the big game or the big exam.
Stress and uncontrolled reactions to stress can lead to kidney damage. As the blood filtering units of your body, your kidneys are prone to problems with blood circulation and blood vessels. High blood pressure and high blood sugar can place an additional strain or burden on your kidneys. People with high blood pressure and diabetes are at a higher risk for kidney disease. People with kidney disease are at higher risk for heart and blood vessel disease. If you already have heart and blood vessel disease and kidney disease, then the body’s reactions to stress can become more and more dangerous.
Therefore, whether your goal is to prevent heart and/or kidney disease, or improve your health while living with heart and/or kidney disease, managing stress is an important part of maintaining your overall health.
The nervous system is a delicate balance of several features — there’s the central nervous system which includes the spinal cord and brain, as well as the “peripheral division” which involves the autonomic (ANS) and somatic nervous systems. The autonomic system, meanwhile, is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is responsible for creating the “fight or flight” response during stressful times, which braces the body to fight off a threat or danger. Essentially, the SNS is responsible for causing all the above changes to occur in your various bodily systems, from the release of stress hormones to an increased heart rate and digestive changes.
This is why chronic stress can be such a long-term drain — the constant ups and downs of stress responses can take a toll on your body.
Stressors can come in many forms, from immediate physical threats like an angry bear, to social threats like an angry friend. In experimental studies in rats, a distinction is often made between social stress and physical stress, but both types activate the HPA axis, albeit through different pathways. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA or HTPA) axis is a complex set of direct influences and steroid-producing feedback interactions among the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. All vertebrates have an HPA, but the steroid-producing stress response is so important that even invertebrates and monocellular organisms have analogous systems.
The HPA is important to psychology because it is intimately involved with many mood disorders involving stress, including anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, insomnia, PTSD, borderline personality disorder, ADHD, depression, and many others. Antidepressants work by regulating the HPA axis.
The hypothalamus contains neurons that synthesize and secrete vasopressin and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). These two hormones travel through the blood to the anterior pituitary, where they cause the secretion of stored adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). The ACTH acts on the adrenal cortex, which produces steroids—in humans, primarily the steroid cortisol. This causes a negative feedback cycle in which the steroids inhibit the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, and it also causes the adrenal gland to produce the hormones epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine.
In the process described above, the HPA axis ultimately produces cortisol. Studies on people show that the HPA axis is activated in different ways during chronic stress—depending on the type of stressor, the person's response to the stressor, and other factors. Stressors that are uncontrollable, threaten physical integrity, or involve trauma tend to have a high, flat profile of cortisol release (with lower-than-normal levels of cortisol in the morning and higher-than-normal levels in the evening) resulting in a high overall level of daily cortisol release. On the other hand, controllable stressors tend to produce higher-than-normal morning cortisol. Stress hormone release tends to decline gradually after a stressor occurs. In post-traumatic stress disorder, there appears to be lower-than-normal cortisol release, and it is thought that a blunted hormonal response to stress may predispose a person to develop PTSD.
When long-term stress becomes chronic, many systems in the body are affected. Chronic stress results in high levels of cortisol and other corticosteroids circulating in the blood for a long period of time. While there are few side effects from short-term exposure to these hormones, over the long-term mental and physical damage may occur.
The immune system is the body’s form of defense. It is comprised of organs, tissues, cells and cell products that all work together to fight harmful substances like the pathogens that cause infection and disease. There are two main ways that stress has a direct, negative effect on the immune system:
1. It creates chronic inflammatory conditions
2. It lowers the immunity of those who otherwise might have a healthy immune system.
People exposed to chronic social conflict experience high levels of stress and consequent dysregulation of the immune system, thereby increasing vulnerability to infectious and autoimmune disease.
Cortisol suppresses inflammation during a response to stress. If it is present in the blood for long periods, the body develops a resistance to cortisol and does not respond to it properly. Instead, it ramps up production of substances that actually promote inflammation leading to a state of chronic inflammation. These pro-inflammation substances, called cytokines, are associated with a host of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune conditions. Autoimmune conditions occur when the body basically mistakes itself as a threat and attacks itself. Examples are fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. Other chronic conditions include diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Chronic stress also results in lower amounts of a protein that is critical to signaling other immune cells. Without these reinforcements, the body is susceptible to contracting acute illnesses, and prolonged healing times. Lymphocytes are a major component of the immune system. They kill invading organisms that would cause disease and they recognize harmful substances and help defend against them. Cortisol and corticosteroids suppress lymphocytes. With a lowered amount of lymphocytes, the body is at increased risk of infection and disease.
Stress plays a major part in the health of our skin. When we are stressed, a hormone called cortisol is released, causing many things to occur in our bodies, including accumulating fat, as well as make your skin very dry, oily, wrinkled, or full of acne.
One stress effect on the skin is wrinkling. When cortisol is released, sugar levels in the blood increase, which, in a continual flow, can cause such things as diabetes. On the skin, it encourages a process called glycation, a stress effect on the skin that damages collagen, hardening it, increasing the appearance of lines and wrinkles.
Another stress effect on the skin is dry skin, which has to do with cortisol yet again. In this case, cortisol decreases the skin’s natural production of something called hyaluronic acid, a natural moisturizer. It can also damage the skin’s protective qualities that allow it to keep hydration levels up. When these things are compromised, the skin, as an effect of stress, becomes dry and damaged.
Another major way that stress effects the skin is by affecting the complexion. When stressed, our bodies also produce adrenaline, which is helpful if you’re out in the woods running from a predator, but, in daily life, it only can hurt. When adrenaline is present, blood flow to the skin is decreased, taking important nutrients (most importantly, oxygen) away from the skin. This allows for toxins to build up, a step that leads many types of skin to develop cellulite as well.
Libido (Sex Drive)
From worrying about money to tight deadlines at work, stress in your life can lead to low libido. Dealing with so many concerns can impact your sex life, exacerbating the problem by potentially adding relationship issues to the problem. When you react to stress, your body goes through a series of changes in order to prepare you to run away or stay and fight, called your fight or flight response. Part of this response is the release of hormones, such as cortisol or epinephrine. If your stress response isn’t reversed, it can contribute to a condition known as chronic stress, impacting your physical health in many ways, including causing a low libido.
If you suspect that life stress is putting a damper on your libido, one of the first solutions you should consider is symptom management. If you reverse your stress response using effective soothing techniques, like breathing exercises or meditation, you won’t have as many hormonal disturbances from chronic stress. You should also consider specific strategies for dealing with the worry or anxiety in other areas of your life, so that they won't have an impact on your sex drive.Talking with a therapist specializing in stress management can help you come up with effective coping techniques.
Reproductive System (Fertility)
Stress is one of nature’s contraceptives and can have a dramatic effect on healthy reproduction. The major stress hormone, cortisol, is derived from progesterone, the primary source of the reproductive hormones testosterone and estrogen. Cortisol is like a long-term form of adrenaline, produced in the adrenal gland when the body is under pressure. Most active people suffer for some form of adrenal fatigue due to pushing their limits for too long. This is particularly true of the successful "power-couple," so often seeking help for infertility.
Men and woman need testosterone to produce the eggs and sperm. Testosterone converts to estrogen in the follicle; this process is called aromatization. Testosterone has to be present for the full 72-day production process of sperm. When stress is stealing all the progesterone, neither estrogen or testosterone can be in adequate supply consistently enough to support healthy reproductive tissue growth. If stress is dominant and the body is running on permanent cortisol overload, it is like running on a credit card that is starting to max out. In this perceptive crisis state, the body has to make a call to sacrifice the progesterone to cortisol instead of testosterone and estrogen. The body feels staying alive is more important than reproducing and therefore fertility takes second place to stress.
Do not underestimate the effects of the drain on your reproductive system by chronic stress. This does not mean the occasional bad day or worries about your fertility, but rather the long-term high demand on your resources. If your body deems you to be in energy debt, it is less likely to feel prepared for pregnancy.