This might sound like a bold statement, however after reading the research in this article you might begin to realize how much of a role stress plays in health, healing, and disease. You’ve probably heard or read statements like “Stress Kills” but let’s look at the actual stress response to understand how stress affects the human body.
The First Stage of the Stress Response
1. The Amygdala
- Area of emotional processing in the brain
- Interprets images and sounds
- Perceives danger and instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus
This is the most interesting part of the stress response because your brain needs to realize that there is a stressor or some kind of danger present in order to react to it properly. The reason why this is so interesting is that it’s based mostly on your perception of the stressor. So two different people might perceive the same stressful event completely different which will cause a different reaction. For example, a soldier that has been in several battles will most likely perceive a battle or gunfight completely different than a soldier who has never been to battle. Another example would be the clown picture below. Some people are terrified of clowns while others aren’t really bothered by clowns. This is all based on the brain’s emotional and memory processing.
- The Command center of the Body
- Controls breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and blood vessel dilation/constriction
- Communications with the Autonomic Nervous system
- Activates the Sympathetic Nervous System
Once the brain realizes there is a stressor present the Hypothalamus takes over to initiate the stress response by activating the Sympathetic part of the Autonomic Nervous System.
3. Autonomic Nervous System
- Sympathetic: “Fight or Flight”
- Parasympathetic: “Rest and Digest”
- Stress activates Sympathetic response
- The SNS sends signals to the adrenal glands
There are 2 parts of the Autonomic Nervous System: the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous systems. If you’re not really sure what the Sympathetic nervous system feels like, it’s that feeling you get when you get really angry or scared, or in other words “Fight or Flight”. The Parasympathetic nervous system is primarily responsible for controlling the body’s ability to heal so this will include resting, digesting, tissue regeneration, etc.
4. Adrenal Glands
- Secrete Adrenaline (epinephrine)
- Increases heart rate
- Increases blood flow to muscles, heart, and other vitals organs
- Increases pulse rate and blood pressure
- Increases Breathing rate and Bronchodilation
- Oxygen is sent to the brain to keep it alert
- Sight, hearing and other senses become sharper
- Triggers release of blood sugar from fat storage
If you’ve ever wondered where that “Adrenaline Rush” comes from then wonder no more because the Adrenal Glands are responsible for secreting adrenaline (aka epinephrine) as well as many other hormones like Cortisol. The interesting thing about adrenaline is that unlike all other hormones, adrenaline has no “off switch”. Once it’s released into the bloodstream it can’t be shut off so it has to follow it’s course until it has been completely utilized by the body.
The Second Stage of the Stress Response
The Hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands all work together to release a series of hormones and hormonal signals to keep the Sympathetic nervous system active if the brain continues to perceive stress.
1.Hypothalamus Releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH)
2.Triggers release of Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary
3.Triggers release of cortisol from the adrenal glands
4.When the threat passes cortisol levels fall and the parasympathetic nervous system decreases the stress response
Functions of Cortisol
Once cortisol is secreted by the adrenals it affects the entire body and as you can see from the list below it is one of the most powerful hormones in the body.
- Mobilizes and increases amino acids
- the building blocks of protein, in the blood and liver
- Stimulates the liver to convert amino acids to glucose
- the primary fuel for energy production
- Stimulates increased glycogen in the liver
- Glycogen is the stored form of glucose
- Mobilizes and increases fatty acids in the blood (from fat cells)
- to be used as fuel for energy production
- Counteracts inflammation and allergies
- Prevents the loss of sodium in urine
- helps maintain blood volume and blood pressure
- Maintains resistance to stress
- (e.g. infections, physical trauma, temperature extremes, emotional trauma, etc.)
- Maintains mood and emotional stability
Effects of Chronically Elevated Cortisol
Cortisol is an amazing hormone for keeping you alive under a stressed state, however, if the stressor remains for a long period of time then it starts to negatively affect the body in the following ways:
- Diminishes cellular utilization of glucose
- Increases blood sugar levels
- Decreases protein synthesis
- Increases protein breakdown that can lead to muscle wasting
- Causes demineralization of bone that can lead to osteoporosis
- Interferes with skin regeneration and healing
- Causes shrinking of lymphatic tissue
- Diminishes lymphocyte numbers and functions
Adaptation to Chronic Stress
In order for us to survive on this planet we need both parts of the Autonomic nervous system and they must be in constant balance otherwise we will experience disease or rather “Dis-Ease” which isn’t really a dysfunction of the body but rather an adaptation to chronic stress. The body can adapt to a state of hyper-stimulation which is often referred to as Sympathetic Dominance or a Sympathetic Dominant State. If the sympathetic nervous system is constantly active it will cause the body to focus on keeping it alive which will require sacrificing certain processes and organ systems. The Digestive system, Reproductive system and Endocrine system organs begin to break down from lack of nutrients and blood flow. The adrenal glands are usually the first in the order of endocrine function Breakdown, followed by the insulin-producing portion of the pancreas, thyroid, ovaries, parathyroid, pineal, pituitary and finally the link to the autonomic Nervous system the Hypothalamus.
Stress and the Adrenals: Adrenal Fatigue
The adrenal glands are the first organs in the endocrine system to begin to breakdown. Since the adrenal glands are the pharmacy of the body because they produce every glucocorticoid, mineralocorticoid, and sex hormone, this will negatively affect the body in tremendous ways.
If the Adrenals are depleted from chronic stress these are the consequences:
- Low body temperature
- Memory loss
- Weak Immune system
- Inflammatory conditions
- Vertigo and dizziness
- Dry and thin skin
- Chronic fatigue
- Difficulty gaining weight
- Difficulty building muscle
- Confusion and Cognitive Impairment
- Autoimmune hepatitis
- Low blood pressure
- Unexplained hair loss
- Excessive hunger
- Alternating diarrhea and constipation
- Autoimmune diseases
Stress and the Thyroid
The thyroid normally produces hormones when the parasympathetic nervous system is active so if the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands are active, thyroid function will be suppressed. If the adrenal glands are fatigued or depleted then the thyroid will become hyperactive. This is why we see so many problems with hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism such as Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s disease.
Symptoms of Hashimoto’s (Hypothyroidism)
- Fatigue and sluggishness
- Increased sensitivity to cold
- Pale, dry skin
- A puffy face
- Brittle nails
- Hair loss
- Enlargement of the tongue
- Unexplained weight gain
- Muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness
- Joint pain and stiffness
- Muscle weakness
- Excessive or prolonged menstrual bleeding (menorrhagia)
- Memory lapses
Symptoms of Graves’ Disease (Hyperthyroidism)
- Anxiety and irritability
- A fine tremor of your hands or fingers
- Heat sensitivity and an increase in perspiration or warm, moist skin
- Weight loss, despite normal eating habits
- Enlargement of your thyroid gland (goiter)
- Change in menstrual cycles
- Erectile dysfunction or reduced libido
- Frequent bowel movements
- Bulging eyes (Graves’ ophthalmopathy)
- Thick, red skin usually on the shins or tops of the feet (Graves’ dermopathy)
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
Stress and the Heart
The thyroid and adrenals aren’t the only organs that are affected by stress. The heart is very susceptible to chronic stress because of the elevations in blood pressure, increased heart rate, elevated cholesterol levels, and much more.
- 1 in 3 deaths in the U.S. is attributed to heart disease
- The most common form of heart disease is Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)
- Chronic Epinephrine surges can damage blood vessels and arteries
- This increases blood pressure and raises the risk of heart attacks or strokes
“During moments of high stress, your body releases hormones such as norepinephrine, which the researchers claim can cause the dispersal of bacterial biofilms from the walls of your arteries. This dispersal can allow plaque deposits to suddenly break loose, thereby triggering a heart attack.”
(American Society for Microbiology)
Chronic Stress and the Digestive System
If you’re looking for the cause of all digestive disorders then you must look at how stress affects the digestive system.
- 4 times less blood flow to your digestive system
- Decreased metabolism
- Decreased enzymatic output in your gut
- Decreased nutrient absorption
- Decreased oxygenation to your gut
- Elevated cholesterol
- Elevated triglycerides
- Decreased gut flora populations
- Increased food sensitivity
Are we under constant stress?
Now that you understand the basics of the stress response you might be wondering how many people are under a state of constant stress. According to the “Annual Stress Survey” by the American Psychological Survey:
- 25% of Americans are experiencing High Levels of Stress
- 50% of American experience Moderate stress
So as much as 75% of people in the US are under a state of constant stress. I think these are relatively conservative estimates because the typical American diet and lifestyle is incredibly stressful, but even if these are accurate estimates this is still very alarming.
The 3 Types of Stress
These are the 3 forms or types of stressors that can cause activation of your Sympathetic Nervous system.
Physical stress can be the result of excessive physical activity or a sedentary lifestyle. Physical stress can also originate from underlying problems in the spine which negatively affect the nervous system.
Obviously chemicals in our environment can cause massive problems throughout our bodies, but many people don’t realize how many chemicals they are exposed to through the standard diet. Our grains are contaminated with glyphosates, our soils are depleted of minerals, our plants are sprayed with pesticides, and most processed food contains dangerous chemical preservatives. Medications and vaccinations are also chemical stressors that can severely damage your body in many ways.
Emotional stressors can be from work, relationships, family, financial troubles and more. These all activate your body’s stress response and negatively affect your health. Remember the Amygdala the emotional processing area of the brain? This is the first part of the stress response and this all has to do with the way your body perceives stress.
The Perfect Recipe for Disaster
- Chronic Stress: Chemical, Physical, Emotional
- Adrenal Fatigue
- Thyroid hyperstimulation or exhaustion
- Pancreatic overload
- Hormonal Imbalances
- Nutrient Deficient Diet
- A Sedentary Lifestyle
- Toxic environment
- Toxic, processed Food
If you look at the typical diet and lifestyle of people nowadays you’ll notice that we have created the perfect recipe for disease and illness. First we are exposed to all 3 stressors constantly, then the adrenals become fatigued and the thyroid begins to breakdown followed by the pancreas and the rest of the digestive system. The entire endocrine system begins to breakdown which cause hormonal imbalances. Then we make this whole process worse with a nutrient deficient diet and a sedentary lifestyle. If you combine all of this with a toxic environment, toxic food, and then prescribe medications to cover up all your symptoms that you’ve created so far, the result is a massive rise is all disease rates.
Your Stress must be Balanced
It’s important to understand that stress is a necessary and normal part of life because without any form of stress our bodies wouldn’t develop the important pathways and mechanisms it needs to survive on this planet. The problem is that when your body experiences a tremendous amount of all 3 stressors it adapts by switching to a Sympathetic Dominant State which disrupts normal function of your entire body. So we don’t necessarily want to be in a completely Parasympathetic state and we definitely don’t want our Sympathetic Nervous System to be constantly active. Ideally, the Sympathetic Nervous System should be active during the day and the Parasympathetic should be active during the evening. If these two parts of your Autonomic Nervous System are in constant balance throughout your life then your body can adapt to any situation or stressor it encounters.
Let’s Get the Healing Process Started!
The First Step to Healing: Avoid the Following
- Environmental Toxins
- Toxic Processed Food
- Sedentary Lifestyle
You can see all 3 stressors in that list above which is why this would be an excellent start to address all of your possible stressors. If you also implement the 5 Keys to Healing below, you’ll be able to stimulate the Parasympathetic Nervous System and bring back balance to your Autonomic Nervous System.
The 5 Keys to Health and Healing
- Proper Nerve Supply (To address Physical stress on the Nervous System)
- Regular Exercise (Exercise is a Healthy form of Physical Stress)
- Proper Nutrition (To address your Chemical Stressors and give your body what it needs)
- Sufficient Rest (Sleep is when your body enters the Parasympathetic state of healing)
- Prayer and Meditation (To address your Emotional Stressors)
How do I help my body deal with the 3 Stressors?
The first step would be incorporating all the proper diet and lifestyle changes to strengthen your immune system and give your body everything it needs to heal properly. Start by switching to an organic, plant based diet with plenty of healthy fats like coconut oil. You need to avoid any packaged or processed food as well as any meats because these are loaded with toxins which directly affect the health and quality of your body. You also need to supplement appropriately with vitamin D3, vitamin C with bioflavonoids, omega 3 (fish oil), Lugol’s Solution (iodine), chlorella, spirulina and a mineral/amino acid supplement like Body Balance from Life Force. Make sure you get the highest quality supplements you can find because these are vital for improving your health.
Check out this video to learn about more healthy dietary and lifestyle changes you can start making right now to improve your health:
Remember that the nervous system controls everything including the thyroid and adrenal glands and any nerve interference particularly coming from the spine will affect function of your organ systems. Physical stress can also be from excessive physical activity or a sedentary lifestyle. It’s best to incorporate a proper exercise routines that you can do on a daily basis to make sure you’re properly dealing with physical stress. I recommend incorporating High Intensity Interval training into your daily routine. My associate, Dr. Mike did an entire video on this subject if you’d like to learn more:
Physical stress can also originate from underlying problems in the spine which negatively affect the nervous system, so I’d highly recommend that you get corrective chiropractic care. The best option would be to find a corrective chiropractor that can analyze your spine and nervous system, identify the specific problems, and correct them accordingly. Make sure you find a chiropractor with the skills necessary to reshape the structure of the spine, restore normal biomechanics, and stimulate the nervous system to promote healing and normal function.
Here’s a video that’ll help you find the best possible chiropractor in your area:
Emotional stressors can be from work, relationships, family, financial troubles and more. These all activate your body’s stress response and negatively affect your health. Try to eliminate any emotional stressors present in your daily life as best you can and watch my videos on Changing your Mindset to learn techniques that’ll help in dealing with stress.
Here’s a video on Changing your Mindset:
Author: Michael Bergman
Reviewed by: Dr. John Bergman