Stress and the Physical Body

There are several known benefits of diet and exercise, body composition and weight management being the most obvious. Not without merit, it is a great feeling to look good in your favorite pair of jeans, and it brings with it the amazing feeling of increased confidence. A lot of fitness-goers also realize that their efforts go beyond skin deep, benefiting the heart, blood vessels and organs, but often neglected in both the recognition and practice is how exercise affects our stress levels, and more importantly, how stress then affects our physical wellbeing.

Stress is a uniquely personal experience, and how someone responds to stress varies. Stress is defined as something that stimulates the body’s homeostasis, or the body’s baseline equilibrium, and what can trigger a response for one person may not necessarily cause stress in another. We all experience brief natural stressors such as nervousness over an interview or test, all of which are unlikely to cause any lasting effect or physiological change, but chronic stressors and major life events, even positive events such as having a baby, can cause a reaction in the physical body. When stimulus is received from stressors the body finds a way to respond to the challenge; this is where the physical body changes, the signs often ignored until they cause more severe and unavoidable problems.

When something stimulates a stress response, the hypothalamus in the brain receives a signal and begins to respond. The hypothalamus communicates with the body via the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Think about the word “auto”; this is where the body processes that happen without thought take place, like your heart beating, metabolism and breathing. The nervous system triggers the “fight or flight response”. This is a normal and healthy part of the human stress response, but since the nervous system is continuously triggered, the “rest and digest” response from the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is told to take a break, so the body doesn’t go into homeostasis…aka back to normal. While these things are happening, the body goes through physical changes that cannot be seen. The blood vessels both dilate and constrict in different places, deeming some functions more important that others. Hormones like cortisol, commonly known as “the stress hormone”, and neurotransmitters like epinephrine, which regulate things like circadian rhythm and glucose function are released. Again, these functions are normal and useful when deployed for a self-limiting stressor, but will produce lasting changes within the body when the stress goes beyond the limited experience.

In the shorter term, chronic stress can lead to:

Chronic elevated stress will lead to increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, and chest pains from the changes in blood flow and volume.

In addition to hypertension, respiratory conditions such as asthma can be triggered.

Muscle tension from constriction can lead to injury and imbalances.

Blood glucose stays elevated due to lack of regulation of insulin. 

Digestive issues occur, such as heartburn, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea occur as the body reduces function in non-essential areas.

Reduced circulation in the extremities, causing tingling and cool/clammy skin.

Breakouts occur due to increase in oil production in the face, triggered by the increase in hormones.

Dry mouth and throat due to reduced salivary secretions.

Weight gain occurs when cortisol triggers an increase in appetite.

An increase in headaches from chronic muscle tension.

Long term stress exposure could lead to very serious health consequences and risk of premature mortality.

Long term reduction of serotonin (the happy neurotransmitter) can lead to altered emotions and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Chronic increased cortisol can suppress reproductive function in both males and females, leading to infertility, as well as painful or irregular menstrual function in women. 

Elevated cortisol levels inhibit bone remodeling and decrease bone mineral density, leading to an increased risk of osteopenia, osteoporosis, and fractures. 

Type two diabetes can develop or become worse due to the body’s altered insulin function.

An increase in cytokines, which cause inflammation throughout the body. Chronic inflammation is a known risk factor for many diseases, such as cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases. 

Irritable bowel syndrome can develop from the altered gut microbiome from chronic exposure to cortisol. 

A chronic increase in cortisol can damage the hippocampus, or the memory center in the brain. This leads to impaired concentration and memory function and increases the risk of memory orders such as dementia later in life.

An increased risk for heart attack and stroke from the damage in the lining of the blood vessels.

Inflammation leads to chronic pain, and an increase in severity of existing joint pain from conditions like arthritis.

If you find yourself minimizing stress as a physical condition and skipping stress reducing health habits like exercise, please be aware that the physical repercussions go far below the skin and are changing you from the inside out. Remember that not all changes have to be big, and the cumulative effects of small benefits can improve your overall quality of life. If stress is something that affects your life make your health and well-being a priority, even if you can’t see the damage on a daily basis.