by Patricia Chaney July 26, 2022 4 min read

Stress is a natural part of everyday life. In the short term, it is an automatic response that helps the body to deal with both perceived and real stressors. However, prolonged stress on the body can negatively impact how we function over time.

Understanding what stress is, how it affects the body and how you can manage healthy levels is important for our overall health - let's take a look at why.

What Is Stress?

Your body experiences different types of stress. Acute stress is immediate, triggering a fight-or-flight response by the nervous system that increases the production of stress hormones providing the energy to respond and should return back to normal once resolved. It is important to understand that our bodies can't tell the difference between a real stressor (needing to run from danger) or a perceived stressor (public speaking, work demands or being stuck in traffic). The stress response is the same.

When exposed to continuous stress over days and weeks, stress hormones can remain elevated for prolonged periods, creating increased demand on the body and starting to wear it down. Day-to-day stressors from your job, your home life, relationships, finances or other commitments all come into play. Dealing with a traumatic event, whether in the past or more recently, can leave your body feeling persistent stress.

Gut imbalances are also a form of stress, which may come as a surprise. There is a direct connection between the gut microbiome and the brain, the immune system and metabolism and dysbiosis can have a widespread effect on hormone signaling, mood and cognition, energy, hunger levels and more. Exposure to environmental stressors like pollution or harmful chemicals, heavy metals and toxins also add to our level of stress.

How Stress Affects the Body

Stress activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Ideally, this hormone activation should be temporary, triggered by your senses and allowing you to respond to the threat. Your body knows how to adjust and handle these temporary events. But when stress persists, even at a low level, you can start to experience negative effects.

Continuous stress can affect not only your health and mood but also your behavior as a result. You may experience headaches, eye strain, muscle aches, digestive upset, lowered thyroid, low libido, low ambition or feelings of extreme tiredness. You can also have trouble focusing or sleeping, you may overeat, drink too much or experience low mood and irritability. These can all be signs that you are under higher levels of stress.

Ongoing low-level stress can lead to HPA-axis dysfunction. Persistent surges in stress hormones can lead to damage to arteries and blood vessels. High levels of stress can also lead to weight loss for some, but weight gain for others or make it harder to lose weight due to the hormonal impact. You could also experience interrupted sleep and a weakened immune system.

Manage Your Daily Stress Response

Stress is a normal part of everyday life; we may not always be able to prevent it, but we can implement strategies that can help support the body from different types of stressors and their impact.

  • Prioritize sleep. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night and adopt a healthy sleep routine, like getting to bed and waking up at a similar time and ensuring your environment supports restful sleep.
  • Incorporate daily movement and weekly exercise. There are widespread benefits to being active when it comes to our overall health. Exercise releases endorphins, that can help boost mood. It can lower your body's stress hormones and help you to sleep better. Remember, though, that too much exercise can also be a stressor - especially if you are already under a lot of stress. It is always important to listen to your body and incorporate the amount and type that best supports you.
  • Find ways to relax. Easier said than done but look for methods that work for you and help your body to wind down into a more relaxed state. You can try gentle stretching in the morning and at night before bed, walks in nature, meditation, or breath work. Aromatherapy, massage, music, and spending time with friends are other ways to help you find some inner calm.
  • Eat for wellness. A diet high in processed foods is low in the essential nutrients we need to function optimally and puts additional stress on the body and our digestive system. We can do a lot to support our body by prioritizing an anti-inflammatory whole food diet, and it's a great place to start. Try to eat at least seven servings of a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables daily to increase the essential nutrient intake of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Include three to four servings of oily fish each week - rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats or plant-rich sources like chia seeds and black walnuts and enjoy healthy fats like avocado or extra virgin olive oil.
  • Identify if you have any gut imbalances. Eating foods you are sensitive to or an underlying imbalance in gut bacteria can add stress to the body and lead to unpleasant side effects like low mood, low energy, skin issues and digestive upset. A simple at-home lab test can help you to identify any gut dysbiosis and the appropriate support you need to help rebalance the body.

Stress helps us respond to threats, focus on a big project at work, or avoid danger. For long-term health, it's essential to keep your stressors manageable and be able to respond when things don't go as planned. Supporting your body through diet and lifestyle practices will go a long way for your overall health and how you react to stress.

If you want to learn more about How Your body Breaks Down Under Stress and why it is so important, take control of this now by listening to this podcast.

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