Stress Unraveled: Understanding its Health Impact and Taking Control

Stress Unraveled:

Understanding its Health Impact and Taking Control

In the fast-paced modern world, stress has become an unwelcome companion in our lives. We often dismiss it as a part of daily living, unaware of the profound impact it can have on our health. Stress can present itself in many ways, some of it is good, we actually need stress to be healthily adapted in life. Things such as being challenged at work and exercise are a form of stress, but in the right doses they help us become sharper, more resilient human beings. Noone will be surprised to know that there are also many forms of unhealthy stress as well. Even some of the stressors we regard as “good” can become unhealthy if the dose is too large. Stress, when it goes unmanaged, can wreak havoc on many systems in the body. Stress will negatively affect heart health, gut health, immune system function, sleep quality, cognitive function, and can even affect longevity. How so, you ask? Well, let’s dive in. 

The Stress-Heart Health Connection:

Stress can be a formidable opponent to a healthy heart. Research has demonstrated a significant link between chronic stress and cardiovascular disease. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that individuals with high stress levels had a 27% increased risk of experiencing heart attacks. This is because prolonged high stress leads to the release of hormones like cortisol, which, when chronically elevated, can lead to increased blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and inflammation. So, it's crucial to keep stress levels in check in order to ensure good heart health.

The Gut-Brain Axis and Digestive Disorders:

The gut, often referred to as our "second brain," is intricately connected to our mental and emotional well-being. Chronic stress can disrupt the delicate balance of the gut microbiota, leading to digestive disorders. Research suggests that stress can exacerbate conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and acid reflux. This disruption in gut health can result in symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and altered bowel movements. 

Stress and Immune System Suppression:

Your immune system acts as your body's defense against pathogens and illnesses. However, chronic stress can weaken it. Studies have shown that prolonged stress can suppress immune function, leaving you more susceptible to infections and diseases. Stress hormones like cortisol (noticing a pattern here?) can interfere with immune cell activity, impairing their ability to fight off harmful invaders. As a result, individuals experiencing chronic stress may experience more frequent infections and a slower recovery rate. 

Stress and Sleep Disturbance

Sleep is usually one of the most obvious things affected by stress, as it will show up sooner in your day to day life. Some of the other impacts of stress may take years of accumulation to show up, but if you can’t fall asleep, or find yourself waking up frequently with racing thoughts then it will start to affect you right away. It becomes a double edged sword as the more often stress disrupts your sleep, the more stressed you become. This can become a vicious cycle. Over time your mood, focus, appetite, energy, and overall health will suffer. 

Stress and Cognitive Decline:

Our cognitive abilities are not immune to the detrimental effects of stress. Chronic stress has been linked to cognitive decline and an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases. High levels of stress hormones can damage brain structures, including the hippocampus, which plays a crucial role in memory and learning. Studies have shown that stress can contribute to the development and progression of conditions like Alzheimer's disease. 

Stress and Longevity:

Stress can also have a profound impact on our longevity. A study published in the British Medical Journal revealed that work-related stress is associated with an increased risk of premature death. Chronic stress can contribute to the development of various chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, and certain types of cancer, which can significantly affect life expectancy. A lot of things can snowball when we are in a state of chronic stress. We 

tend to neglect important aspects of our lives such as exercise, proper diet, and sleep, which leads to all the negative effects described above. The accumulation of all these effects together will inevitably lead to a shortened lifespan and lower quality of life during the years you have. 

So What Can We Do?

  • Adopt heart healthy practices like regular cardiovascular exercise- this can be as simple as walking 8,000 steps/day or you can make time for something like a bike ride or a hike. Do what makes you happy. 
  • Adopt gut-friendly practices, such as a healthy diet and probiotic supplementation in order to maintain a harmonious gut-brain axis.
  • Try to implement immune boosting habits into your daily routine, such as taking a multivitamin and/or supplementing with Vitamin D (under the supervision of a doctor).
  • Practice sound sleep hygiene to help reduce the risk for stress disrupting your sleep- this means no screen time 1 hour prior to bed, avoiding large meals 3 hours before bed, and trying to stick to consistent sleep/wake times to start. 
  • To maintain good cognitive function it is important to stimulate your brain in different ways. Trying a new hobby, yoga, reading a good book. Even better if you have someone join you! It is extremely important to maintain regular connection with friends and family who make us feel good. These are all great strategies to allow the stressed brain to take a break. 
  • In terms of overall longevity, the above strategies are all going to help. We also like to recommend a daily mindfulness or meditation practice to help keep you centered. This can make a bigger difference than you think when it comes to managing your stress levels long term!

Stress is often brushed off as a minor inconvenience, but it carries substantial consequences for our health and well-being. It is an unavoidable part of our daily lives, especially in the current environment we find ourselves in, where the message is usually “you can sleep when you’re dead” and working overtime is a badge of honor. Understanding the multifaceted nature of stress empowers us to take action by adopting stress management techniques to manage it so it doesn’t manage us.