PHYSIOLOGIC EFFECTS OF STRESS
(Part two of the Stressed Out blog series.)
You’ve heard it said, “Stress is a killer.” What is happening for that to be such a profound remark? When getting stressed out, you can run the gamut from purposeless fatigue to experiencing life-threatening illness. Understanding the physiologic impacts of stress on the body, you see the necessity to take steps to control how you respond to it. Here are 6 noteworthy negative effects to consider:
1) Contraction Band Lesions
Continuous production of high levels of adrenal stress hormones (catecholamines–epinepherine and norepinephrine) will cause contraction band lesions. These lesions are microscopic tears or ruptures in muscle fibers causing weakening the heart. What results is short circuiting in the ventricles (lower chambers) of the heart and an inability to pump blood. Sudden death results. Autopsies performed on those with these lesions often have open and healthy-appearing arteries; however, the heart became so weakened by the cascade of stress hormones, it disintegrated from the inside.
Dr. Robert Eliot is an author and world-famous cardiologist who has helped to clarify how stress causes these lesions and resultant death. Having experienced a heart attack himself at age 44, Dr. Eliot soon realized his driven personality and resultant stress was not worth dying for. This realization compelled him to help others to be able to reduce their stress and heart disease risk. As a matter of fact, he coined the phrase ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff!’ within his book, “Is It Worth Dying For?”
2) Lowering of Natural Killer Cell Activity
Among a healthy immune system’s response to invaders are specialized lymphocytes or white blood cells called natural killer cells. These NK cells are part of innate immunity. They are pre-programmed to recognize pathogens–especially virus-infected host cells or host cells that have become cancerous– and quickly destroy them. So, what has happened when a cold or flu virus is not stopped right away?
A research study was conducted on 75 first year medical students undergoing stress of student exams at Ohio State University College of Medicine. It was determined that natural killer cell activity lowered, resulting in upper respiratory infections and bronchitis. This connection was substantiated through students’ blood samples drawn one month prior to final examinations compared with blood drawn on the first day of the exams. Those with the greatest impact from the high stress of exams and other emotional factors had markedly lowered resistance. It is a telling case in point how stress compromises the immune system, making us more susceptible to infections.
3) Cancer and Other Dis-eases
Major stress for the average person centers on emotional problems, job pressure and money worries. These common stressors are often reasons for the lack of proper sleep and rest. Caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and drugs become the norm as stress relievers.
Cancer gains a foothold where the immune system is compromised. There are other factors known to contribute to cancer such as lack of sufficient oxygen, an acidic pH, high-intake of sugar, congestion or stagnation, certain personality traits, chemical toxins and various forms of pollution. It is obvious, however, that the natural killer cells are the designated predators to destroy cancerous host cells. We want those numbers of NK cells to be sufficient to do the job, right?
Healthy cells need proper nutrition, to cleanse and have protection. When stress is not met with proper response, lifestyle factors for health are usually neglected. Dis-ease processes begin. Research clearly shows the strong link of stress and cancer.
Prolonged stress targets organs like the adrenal glands and impacts all aspects of our lives. Severe fatigue can compound stress because it affects our personal and professional relationships in many ways– job performance, mental sharpness, or physical performance. Depression can easily set in, and if the entire problem is not addressed and corrected, hopelessness along with losing the will to live may result.
5) Negative Brain Changes
We’ve all experienced stressful problems causing forgetfulness and decrease in concentration. You find it hard to remember simple things. What is happening is that persistent stressful thoughts are triggering the sympathetic nervous system to release the neurotransmitter and stress hormone, norepinephrine. This stress hormone is associated with lessening attention span, poor memory and lessening one’s inhibitions.
The brain is the control center for the body made up of very complex lobes orchestrating highly-specialized activity occurring simultaneously. Chronic stress and its resultant high levels of stress hormones (norepinephrine and cortisol) create long-term changes in the structure/function of the brain. Some noted changes are seen in gray matter vs white matter as well as size and connectivity of the amygdala.
Scientific research has shown that adding emotional charges to memories takes place within the amygdala. Both the amygdala and the cortex (primarily prefrontal cortex), handles short-term memory while long-term memory storage involves the hippocampus. Fear is a stress emotion that the amygdala can attach to contextual thoughts or memories. It is thought that depressed individuals may have an inability to turn off the amygdala’s fear messages. It is also suggested that the prolonged inability to turn off this fight-or-flight stress response from fear-induced thoughts may set one up for the behavioral conditioning that is present in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Physical appearance changes under stress. The chin may start to break out with blemishes. Hair starts falling out, turns grey or may just appear to have lost it’s shine, now dull and lifeless. Wrinkles on the brow begins to age the face, and skin in general looks washed out. Others can see the physical manifestations of your stress. These changes parallel aging. The aging process itself is accompanied by decreasing level of circulating hormones and lowered immune power. So, stress and aging go hand-in-hand.
For the above impacts as well as countless others, it should be obvious that allowing yourself to get stressed out impacts many body structures and functions. It affects your quality of life as well as shortening it in some cases. The best ways to combat stress and maintain health will be covered in Part 3 – Self-help for Stress. Stay tuned!
Note: Part 1 – In case you missed it.