WARIG: Stress can seriously damage your health. Here’s why. And how to manage it

man with steam

What exactly is stress? Is it a thought, a reaction or something physical? The answer is all of these and more besides.  While many think of stress as being all in the mind, the reality is that ongoing stressful thinking can be as harmful to your body as smoking, drinking too much or eating a junk-food diet.

As well as reducing your enjoyment of life, ongoing stress is bad news for your health. Our in-built stress response is key to our survival. Without out it we’d have become some predator’s lunch thousands of year ago.

But in modern life we experience the same ‘fight or flight response many times each day. Workplace politics, traffic jams, disagreements at home, money worries, having too much to do and too little time to do it all. All of these problems activate the same stress response – the release of adrenalin.

The cascade of stress

Just one stressful thought can trigger a whole load of physical reactions. And while this complex cascade is designed to increase your survival chances in the short term, if you keep triggering this response over the long term you’ll move from feeling wired to feeling tired, and eventually you’ll become exhausted.

As well as generating unpleasant emotional sensations, the cascade of hormones and chemicals triggered by stress, over time, accelerate ageing, encourage inflammation and degeneration, and increase the risk of heart disease. 

Let’s look at what actually happens to you when you experience an event that you perceive to be stressful:

  • Your thought is registered in the cerebral cortex of your brain and carried to the hypothalamus, the brain’s ‘master gland’, which can then stimulate a reaction throughout the body. The hypothalamus activates your autonomic nervous system(AS), which controls essential bodily functions such as breathing and heartbeat. Your AS has two strands – the sympathetic nervous system (SS) and the parasympatheticnervous system (PS). When you register stress, it’s the SS that springs into action, preparing your body for ‘fight orflight’ – because even if there is no physical danger, you still react to a stressful event as if there is.
  • The SS alerts your adrenal glands to pump out the hormonesadrenalin and noradrenalin. These, along with other chemicals released into your blood, trigger an increase in heart rate, boost blood flow to your arms and legs, dilate your pupils toenhance peripheral vision, increase perspiration, stimulatemental activity and concentration, release calcium from your bones to aid blood clotting, and release sugar stores into your bloodstream – all to make you physically ready to deal with the‘danger’ you are facing as if it were literally life-threatening.
  • The SS also shuts down non-essential bodily functionsand so reduces digestive activity, immune action, repair and regeneration.
  • At the same time, the hypothalamus stimulates the pituitarygland (another component of your brain that controls hormones)to release adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) into your bloodstream. This stimulates your adrenal glands to release another hormone – cortisol – which is longer-lasting thanadrenalin. In the short term, cortisol reduces allergic reactions and inflammation while also suppressing immune activity. (Inthe long term, this leaves you more susceptible to infection.)
  • ACTH stimulates your adrenal glands to release another hormone– aldosterone – which increases blood volume; hence,your blood pressure increases.
  •  Your pituitary gland also releases thyroid-stimulating hormone(TSH) to stimulate your thyroid gland to produce yetanother hormone, thyroxine. This increases your metabolicrate, raises the level of sugar in your blood to provide fuel, increases heart and respiration rates, sends your blood pressure up, and increases intestinal motility movement (this can trigger diarrhoea, a common side-effect when you experiencea particularly stressful event).

As you can see, just one stressful thought can trigger a whole loadof physical reactions. And while this complex cascade is designed to increase your survival chances in the short term, if you keep triggering this response over the long term, you’ll move from feeling wired to feeling tired, and eventually you’ll become exhausted.

The stress response puts you into overdrive to deal with a short-term emergency, but remaining in overdrive is very draining. That’s why your body starts to malfunction and you become continually tired and/or more prone to infection. You may find you overreact to stressful...

Want to keep reading? Members have full access...

Join Today!

JOIN NOW!

First month free

Then £7.99 per month & free cancellation at any time

FREE health check

Find out your health score & see how healthy you are

Personal Health Plan

Detailed report, analysis & tailored action plan

Free Vitamin D3

With your first purchase at HOLFORDirect (suitable for vegans)

Save money

20% off all Patrick Holford supplements & events plus free delivery over £30

Exclusive Health support

Ask Patrick your questions, access to Low GL recipes & research updates