"Stress can make you sick," says Dr. Esther Sternberg, a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health who has extensively studied the connection between health and emotions.
While that statement might sound simplistic, Dr. Sternberg explains: When our brain's response to stress is out of balance it doesn't respond correctly. Normally, the immune system activates the brain's stress response, which in turn tunes down the immune system and produces anti-inflammatory hormones that regulate the immune system. If too little stress response hormones are produced, immune cells won't turn off leading to an overactive immune system that can result in chronic fatigue syndrome and other inflammatory conditions (such as asthma and skin conditions) and autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus). Conditions associated with chronic stress include prolonged wound healing and an increased severity and incidence of viral infections. In contrast, if too much stress response hormones are produced, there's a greater risk of infection.
"Fight-or-Flight" Response Commonly referred to as the "fight-or- flight" reaction, the stress response occurs automatically in your body when you feel threatened. Your pituitary gland, located at the base of your brain, responds to a perceived threat by stepping up its release of a hormone called a drenocorticotropic, or ACTH, which signals other glands to produce additional hormones. When the pituitary sends out a burst of ACTH, it's like an alarm system going off deep in your brain. This alarm tells your adrenal glands, situated atop your kidneys, to release a flood of stress hormones into your bloodstream. These hormones – including cortisol and adrenaline – focus your concentration, speed your reaction time, and increase your strength and agility.
After you've fought, fled or otherwise escaped your stressful situation, the levels of cortisol and adrenaline in your bloodstream decline. As a result, your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal and your digestion and metabolism resume a regular pace. But if stressful situations continue or you keep incurring additional stress, your body has no chance to recover. This long-term activation of the stress-response reaction can disrupt almost all of your health.
How Stress Affects Your Health Prolonged or unresolved stress can have the following effects on your body, according to experts at the Mayo Clinic:
It's common to have a stomachache or diarrhea when you're feeling stressed. This happens because stress hormones slow the release of stomach acid and the emptying of the stomach. The same hormones also stimulate the colon, which speeds the passage of its contents. Chronic stress can also lead to continuously high levels of cortisol. This hormone can increase appetite and cause weight gain
Chronic stress tends to dampen your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds and other infections. Typically, your immune system responds to infection by releasing several substances that cause inflammation. In response, the adrenal glands produce cortisol, which switches off the immune and inflammatory responses once the infection is cleared. However, prolonged stress keeps your cortisol levels continuously elevated, so your immune system remains suppressed. In some cases, stress can have the opposite effect, making your immune system overactive. The result is an increased risk of autoimmune diseases, in which your immune system attacks your body's own cells. Stress can also worsen the symptoms of pre-existing autoimmune diseases, such as the sporadic flare-ups of lupus.
If your fight-or-flight response never shuts off, stress hormones produce persistent feelings of anxiety, helplessness and impending doom. Oversensitivity to stress has been linked with severe depression, possibly because depressed people have a harder time adapting to the negative effects of cortisol. Cortisol (and its byproducts) can contribute to feelings of depression, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite or even a loss of the desire for intimacy
High levels of cortisol can also raise your heart rate and increase your blood pressure and blood lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels. These put you at a higher risk for both heart attack and stroke. Cortisol levels also appear to play a role in the accumulation of abdominal fat, which can increase a person's risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Stress can worsen many skin conditions, such as psoriasis, eczema, hives and acne. Keys to Managing Your Stress Needless to say, one of the keys to maintaining your health is stress management. When stress is at a reasonable level, we're able to cope with it and often feel better within a few days or even just a few hours. But sometimes stress can become overwhelming. Fortunately, for these times, God has provided us with natural herbs and nutrients from His plant kingdom that can help us effectively cope with stress. Among them are chamomile, eleuthero (known as Siberian ginseng) gotu kola, passionflower and magnolia bark – all of which help promote calmness and well-being without the unwanted side effects that a prescription or over-the-counter medication might produce, such as drowsiness or disrupted memory.
If stress in your life has become so severe that it interferes with your daily activities or affects your health, see your physician. There may be an underlying medical condition that needs proper treatment. If your doctor finds there isn't a physical problem, then I recommend that you try a daily nutritional supplement that includes the herbs that he mentioned, along with B vitamins (vitamins B5 and B6 in particular) and the mineral magnesium. Along with a proper diet, exercise and sufficient rest, you can control stress so that you can have a more peaceful and tranquil life – and ultimately better health.