We’re all familiar with stress. Stress is a natural “fight or flight” response to difficult or tense situations. During times of stress, the brain floods with stress hormones, resulting in responses such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and muscle tension.

For our more primitive ancestors, the stress response prepared the body and brain to react quickly in dangerous situations. For many of us today, stress is the normal state in which we live. But because our bodies weren’t design to live in a state of constant stress, many of us suffer negative health consequences as a result. Chronic stress can lead to heart problems, contribute to weight gain, and cause premature aging. It can also impair your immune system function, leaving you more vulnerable to illness.

If you have uncontrolled stress, it’s important to understand how it can impact your overall health, and learn strategies for getting stress under control. The following are some of the ways that chronic stress can damage your health and quality of life.

The cardiovascular system

Stress can greatly impact the heart, arteries, and the rest of the cardiovascular system. Acute stress, or stress that occurs suddenly and is short-term, contracts the heart muscle with more strength than usual. The blood vessels in charge of sending blood to the heart and large muscles also dilate, increasing the amount of blood pumped to these areas. These processes increase blood pressure. Once the source of acute stress passes, the cardiovascular system returns to normal, typically with no long-term effects.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, can impact cardiovascular health for the long term. Being in a state of constant stress can result in ongoing hypertension, or high blood pressure. A consistently rapid heartbeat and dilation of blood vessels can wreak havoc on the body over time. People suffering from chronic stress have a much higher risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart attack or stroke.

The muscular system

Stress hormones act like an alarm system throughout the body, triggering a number of different reactions. The muscular system tenses all at once, and then relaxes once the perceived threat has passed. Chronic stress can cause prolonged muscle tension and stress-related disorders such as tension headaches and migraines. Pain, soreness, and cramps in the neck, shoulders, and back can all arise from stress-related tension.

The endocrine system

Your nervous system also goes into fight-or-flight mode under stress, triggering the release of adrenaline and cortisol. Stress signals from the brain to the adrenal glands result in the release of these stress hormones, which give you the energy or “wired feeling” that helps you flee from danger. The release of adrenaline and cortisol from the adrenal glands in turn triggers the liver to produce more glucose to give you more energy. If you don’t use this extra glucose, the body will absorb it – unless you’re insulin resistant or have type 2 diabetes, in which case the extra glucose can stick around and cause further problems.

The respiratory system

Stress hormones also trigger a response in the respiratory system, often resulting in rapid or shallow breathing. It can be especially difficult to breathe during times of stress if you have existing lung issues such as asthma, allergies, or emphysema. Severe acute stress, such as receiving the news of a loved one’s death, can trigger hyperventilation, asthma attacks, or panic attacks. Working on deep breathing exercises in time of stress can help combat these issues.

The gastrointestinal system

Under stress, the brain becomes more aware of sensations in the stomach. This is what causes the feeling of “butterflies” during times of nervousness. You might feel nauseated under severe stress. Chronic stress can increase the risk of ulcers in the stomach, or the risk of severe stomach pain with or without ulcers.

Stress also has adverse effects on the bowels. Stress can impede and alter digestion, changing the nutrients your intestines absorbs and how quickly you digest food. Diarrhea or constipation can occur as a result of stress. People with irritable bowel syndrome can be more susceptible to stress-related issues and bowel problems due to emotional distress. Stress can also increase the severity of acid reflux from the esophagus – especially if you eat more food than usual while stressed.

Stress and weight gain

Stress and weight gain exist in a vicious cycle that can be never-ending unless you take action to reduce the stress levels in your life. Weight gain is a common result of chronic stress. After the effects of adrenaline wear off, cortisol signals the body to replenish energy by eating – even if you haven’t burned very many calories. Our ancestors tended to burn off a lot of energy during times of stress – for example, if they were fighting off a wild animal. But for many of us today, our stressors may involve things like worrying about paying the bills or working long hours at the computer – things that don’t burn a lot of energy. Your system under stress may tell you to eat more because it mistakenly believes that you’ve burned calories following a period of stress. Although you physically don’t need to replenish any calories, your brain will tell you otherwise. This can result in “stress eating” and subsequent weight gain.

An increase in appetite, however, isn’t the only reason that stress can cause weight gain. Cortisol also results in higher insulin levels and fluctuations in blood sugar – causing the desire to binge on sugary or fattening comfort foods. Eating these foods can provide a temporary source of solace, and turn stress eating into a bad habit.

Elevated cortisol levels also trigger the storage of fat in the abdomen, or visceral fat. This type of belly fat is particularly dangerous and is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and even dementia.

Conquer stress before it conquers you

Reversing the negative effects of stress on the body requires a multifaceted, proactive plan for eliminating sources of stress and managing existing stress. Obviously, getting rid of all of the stress in our lives isn’t possible, but changing the ways we respond to stress and focusing on building healthy habits can go a long way towards mitigating the effects of stress on our health.

  • Adopt healthy coping strategies. It’s common to respond to stress in unhealthy ways such as binge eating, drinking, or sleeping too much. If you find yourself drawn to these behaviors, ask yourself what else you can do to manage your stress. Try exercising, writing in a journal, or meditating.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise naturally reduces stress by producing mood-boosting endorphins. Even something as simple as a walk around the block can improve your health and put you in a better mood. For the best results, don’t wait until stress is a problem to break out your gym shoes. Regular exercise will improve your sleep, boosts your cardiovascular health, build self confidence, and help you remain calm and focused in difficult situations.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Good nutrition can be a powerful tool in reducing the negative effects of stress. A diet high in fruits and vegetables can improve your cardiovascular health, improve digestion, reduce inflammation, and even improve your mental health.
  • Consider a fasting mimicking diet. Resting your digestive system by eating less food for a prolonged period – known as prolonged fasting – gives your body the opportunity to devote energy to healing many common health issues, including those associated with chronic stress. In clinical trials, eating a reduced-calorie diet for one week per month over a three-month period resulted in better blood glucose control, decreased visceral fat, lower blood pressure, and reduced inflammatory markers. Learn more about ProLon and the positive effects of fasting.

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