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The Chemical Effects of Stress

Nina Ghamrawi, MS, RD, CDE
December 1, 2022
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Were you ever startled, scared, about to have an accident, or awoke from a nightmare? Your heart was racing, you were breathing heavily, muscles tensed, or you might have been sweating? Well, that is stress. Whether for just a moment, or daily and constant, stress has some damaging chemical effects on the body.

There are all kinds of evolutionary responses to stress, but we are no longer being chased by saber-toothed tigers, so our stressors are a little different now.

The Chemical Effects of Stress:

Our bodies are well equipped to handle stress in small doses, but when that stress becomes long-term or chronic, it can have serious effects on your body in your muscles, breathing, and body’s chemistry.

Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress—the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain. The muscles tense up all at once, and then release tension when the stress passes. Chronic stress can lead to muscles that are are tense for long periods of time, and may trigger some stress-related disorders, like tension or migraine headaches (when tension is in the area of the shoulders, neck and head).

High physical and emotional stress situations or lifestyles can lead, over time, to a variety of health complications: high glucose, weight gain and obesity, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure.

Stress can affect breathing for those people with breathing conditions: some studies show that an acute stress—such as the death of a loved one—can actually trigger asthma attacks. In addition, the rapid breathing—or hyperventilation—caused by stress can bring on a panic attack in someone prone to panic attacks.

Stress that is momentary or short-term such as meeting deadlines, being stuck in traffic or suddenly slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident—causes an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle, with the stress hormones—adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol—acting as messengers for these effects. Chronic stress on these blood vessels and heart can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.

In your body, these stress hormones, especially cortisol, will increase the amount of sugar available in your blood by pulling it out of the liver and sugar stores. Cortisol is normally produced in varying levels throughout the day, typically increasing in concentration upon awakening and slowly declining throughout the day, providing a daily cycle of energy. But when we are stressed, these sugar levels rise, and with chronic stress, they may stay high, leading to lower energy, increased weight gain, high blood sugars, among other things.

So from issues with muscle knots, headaches, breathing difficulty, to weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease, stress can seriously harm you.

Protect Your Body From Stress

Stress and your health is a cycle - if you live healthfully, you can also better protect your body from the effects of stress. Protect your body by doing these things:

  • Don't skip meals, especially breakfast. If you're in a hurry, grab a piece of fruit on the way out the door.
  • Eat a healthy diet, such as whole grains and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Aim to include most food groups in your meals.
  • Before eating, ask yourself why you're eating — are you truly hungry or do you feel stressed or anxious?
  • If you're tempted to eat when you're not hungry, find a distraction.
  • Identify comfort foods and keep them out of your home or office.
  • Keep a record of your behavior and eating habits so that you can look for patterns and connections — and then figure out how to overcome them.
  • Exercise! One of the best ways to boost hormones that combat the effects of cortisol is exercise. Though it increases adrenaline, it boosts mood-lightening endorphins that help stressful situations feel less stressful.
The next time you feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or angry, take a stroll. Even a five-minute walk can help clear your head and lower your stress levels.

How to handle stress:

When you feel less stressed and more in control of your life, you may find it easier to keep your health in track.

Try these stress management techniques to combat stress-related weight gain:

  • Recognize the warning signs of stress, such as anxiety, irritability and muscle tension.
  • Learn problem-solving skills so that you can anticipate challenges and cope with setbacks.
  • Practice relaxation skills, such as yoga, stretching, massage, deep breathing or meditation.
  • Engage in regular physical activity or exercise.
  • Get adequate sleep.
  • Get encouragement from supportive friends and family.
  • Reserve a little time for yourself every day: practice self-enrichment activities, such as fun reading, artistic hobbies, or even a nice soak in the tub to pamper yourself with doing what you love.

If you try stress management techniques on your own but they don't seem to be working, consider seeking professional help through psychotherapy or counseling.

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