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Chronic Stress Health Effects and Causes

Stress is chronic when it occurs consistently for a prolonged period of time and has many profound negative effects on your physical, emotional, and spiritual health. As a matter of fact, it is a leading underlying cause or exacerbating element for most, if not all, medical and psychological disorders.

Chronic stress is the result of the body remaining in fight or flight on a frequent or continuous basis.

Chronic Stress and The Autonomic Nervous System

The health effects of chronic stress originate in the autonomic nervous system. There are two parts to our autonomic nervous system, which resides in the brain, brain stem, and spinal cord and is the area of the body that is responsible for stress, as well as all other involuntary functions like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, circulation, digestion, bladder and bowel movements.

The Sympathetic Nervous System

Also known as our stress response system or fight for flight. It is designed to deal with brief emergencies and survival issues and it serves as the accelerator of the system. The sympathetic nervous system is activated anytime we experience stress.

The fight/flight system, or stress response system, originated millions of years ago, to protect our ancestors from predators. For example, a big wild animal would come along, the body would go into stress response mode to deal with the situation. The wild animal would pass, or the individual would escape the beast, and then the stress response system would turn off.

When the stress response system is activated, fear and anxiety pervade, heart rate goes up, blood glucose increases, digestion is shut down, immune function and circulation are downregulated, blood pressure rises, the detoxification system is impaired, sleep is disrupted, neurotransmitters get drained from excessive demand, hormone production and function is disrupted, our sense of smell, taste and sound are heightened, pupils are dilated, cognitive functions are impaired and we are less fertile. All of our resources are directed towards handling the emergency situation at hand and anything that is not absolutely essential for survival at that moment will be downregulated to conserve energy.

Here’s what happens when we are faced with stress of any kind:

  • Stress is perceived by the locus ceruleus in the brainstem.
  • The locus ceruleus dispenses norepinephrine.
  • Norepinephrine instantly ignites all cells in the body and triggers the amygdala.
  • The amygdala assesses whether incoming information is a threat or not and then activates the hypothalamus.
  • The hypothalamus secretes CRH to provoke the pituitary to send out ACTH to activate the adrenal glands.
  • Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands to counteract the stress, while preganglion sympathetic neurons prompt the adrenal medulla to deliver epinephrine.

Although norepinephrine is absolutely essential for our existence, when it is in excess it is actually toxic to the brain, because it keeps us in a constant state of sympathetic stress.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System

This serves as the breaks of the system and returns the body to homeostasis after a period of stress. It is often referred to as the rest and digest state and completely reverses each of the effects of the sympathetic nervous system.

Although the sympathetic nervous system is vital to subsist, if we remain in that state consistently, it is degenerative. We are supposed to be in the parasympathetic mode the majority of the time as it is regenerative. The sympathetic nervous system is only to be used for short periods.

When the system is working as it is designed, the fight or flight system is activated when we are confronted with stress, the stressful event comes to an end, and the parasympathetic nervous system returns us to our normal state. Chronic stress impedes this process; instead of returning to the preferred and regenerative parasympathetic state, the body remains in a constant state of fight or flight.

Chronic Stress Causes

There are many different types or causes of stress that may thrust us into fight or flight mode. I take the following model from Dr. C.E. Gant, which is an excellent in-depth illustration.

  1. Cognitive stress – includes impractical expectations of self and others, thinking and problem solving process, reading, trying to make others happy, learning.
  2. Sensory stress – no quiet time alone, ongoing pain, glaring lights, blaring noise.
  3. Toxic stress – this includes exposure to substances like mold, petrochemicals, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, air fresheners, perfumes and cologne, air pollution, or even internal toxins like ammonia.
  4. Emotional stress – the most well known type of stress may refer to issues such as, loss of a relationship, interpersonal conflict, death in the family, coping with a chronic illness, dysfunctional or abusive relationships, childhood neglect and/or abuse, loss of employment, living in poverty or struggling to make ends meet and divorce.
  5. Immune Stress – covers things like inflammation, autoimmune disorders, allergy
  6. Oxidative stress – impairment in detoxification, lung conditions, getting enough clean air, circulation
  7. Structural stress – temporomandibular joint, osteoporosis, chiropractic issues
  8. Endocrine and neurotransmitter stress – premenstrual syndrome, type 2 diabetes, neurotransmitter depletion, menopause, thyroid disorders, hormone imbalance
  9. Infections stress – viruses, yeast and fungi, parasites
  10. Purposelessness – covers spiritual matters like inner peace, self-discovery, disconnection, living a meaningful life
  11. Energetic stress – cell phones and towers, computers, earth energies, negative people
  12. Metabolic stress – nutrient status, body pH, syndrome x, glucose issues

The added combination of any of the stressors in this list that may apply to your situation is what Dr. Gant calls the body’s Total Stress Load. The more stressors you are contending with, the higher your total stress load. The higher your total stress load, the more often you will be in the sympathetic stress mode — thus a state of chronic stress and many effects on your health.

Our ancestors did not face these 12 different causes of stress and the numerous possibilities under each one. They had short-term temporary stress, so the fight/flight system served them well. However, the dilemma in our modern-day life is that the brain and body cannot distinguish the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat. All types of stress are perceived by the brain as a wild animal that is a threat to our survival, so each and every one of these types of stress thrusts you into fight or flight mode. Most of us are dealing with chronic stress on a daily basis.

Health Effects of Chronic Stress

If one remains in fight or flight mode for an extended period of time, the body begins to break down and it results in burnout, also known as dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system or dysautonomia, which can then lead to many debilitating conditions like high blood pressure, sleep disorders, addiction, impaired mental health, endocrine disorders, fatigue, chemical sensitivities and more.

Another common effect of chronic stress is an event called cortisol steal. When you are under stress, you need very high levels of cortisol, because it is the hormone that the body uses to cope with stress. The precursors that are needed to make cortisol are also the precursors that are needed to make all other hormones. Since the body cannot survive without cortisol, it will use up all the precursors to make cortisol, which means there will not be enough left over for important hormones like DHEA, aldosterone, progesterone, and testosterone. This may lead to insufficiency in these hormones and a river of problems like PMS, breast cancer, anxiety, fibroids, fertility issues, mood swings, weight gain, osteoporosis, and many others.

However, the adrenal glands may have a hard time keeping up with the demand for cortisol and DHEA and adrenal fatigue may develop. Adrenal insufficiency then results in a sea of other issues like chronic fatigue, exhaustion, insomnia, weight gain, anxiety disorders, food cravings, blood sugar issues, thyroid disorders and much more.

You also need very high levels of neurotransmitters when you are under stress because they are also used to regulate the stress response system and return us to our preferred parasympathetic state. As a matter of fact, having a healthy brain is key for keeping sympathetic stress in check. If stress is prolonged, then it drains all your neurotransmitter reserves.

Neurotransmitters are critical for governing pretty much everything in the body, but especially important for mental health, cognitive function and memory. Thus long-term stress may lead to drug and alcohol addiction, depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, attention deficit, impaired cognitive function and any other type of mental health disorder.

When you are under stress, epinephrine triggers the liver to release its glycogen (sugar) into the bloodstream, because a lot of energy is needed during times of stress. This means if stress is chronic, that there is a high level of sugar in the bloodstream all the time, which provokes an insulin response, storage of fat, inflammation, cravings for carbs and may cause or exacerbate conditions like insulin resistance, hyperinsulinism, type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, sugar and carb addiction, compulsive overeating, candida overgrowth and more.

Your need for nutrients also increases when you are under stress because it will burn up your nutrients very fast. Nutrients are needed for every organ and system in the body to function properly and for the production and function of neurotransmitters in the brain. If you aren’t eating a good diet, then you may not have many nutrients available to begin with, which actually causes even more stress. Significant nutritional deficiencies may also develop.

The digestive system is another system that is hit hard by burnout, because it is the first system to be shut down when stress occurs, to conserve energy. Digestive enzymes, bile, and peristalsis are inhibited. If there is chronic stress, then digestion will be impaired indefinitely, which can lead to a wide variety of gastrointestinal symptoms and disorders.

It’s important to keep in mind that when digestion is impaired, then food will not be broken down adequately, which means nutrients will not be absorbed properly, and that can lead to fewer nutrients being available to run the brain and body and build neurotransmitters, and this may also contribute to nutritional deficiencies.

On the spiritual level, it is easy to see how the effects of burnout can impede your ability to experience inner peace, fulfilling life and reach higher levels of consciousness, engage in self-discovery, or achieve your fullest potential as a man or woman.

Some other common conditions to result from chronic stress include, but are not limited to, weakened immunity, high blood pressure, panic attacks, cardiovascular and circulation problems, auto-immune disorders, hyperactivity, attention deficit, eating disorders, back and headaches, ulcers, cynicism, anger management or rage issues, violence, unexplained nausea, overactive bladder, and even cancer. Furthermore, any other condition you can think of will be exacerbated with high levels of stress.

Is your health suffering from chronic burnout? You can find out with a simple, non-invasive, do-it-yourself, at-home saliva test. By measuring your cortisol levels, you can determine to what extent your health is being impacted by stress and thus know which interventions might be helpful for your circumstance.

If this vicious cycle continues indefinitely, there is a ripple effect on the rest of the body. Eventually, all systems and organs may become impacted and begin to deteriorate, which means more and more symptoms and conditions will develop over time.

You should take a look at the following page for a more thorough understanding of the causes and effects of chronic stress on health and well-being and the steps that should be taken to reduce its impact.

References for Chronic Stress Health Effects

  1. Gant Charles, M.D., ND, Webinar, Endocrine Stress
  2. Weil Andrew Dr., Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing

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