Long-Term Effects of Stress
Ever been stressed? Of course you have! We all have. You’re probably quite familiar with the feeling, maybe it causes a knot in your stomach, a sleepless night, or a raging craving for something sweet.
We know that stress affects our physical and emotional health in many ways, but we most often think about the immediate effects of acute stress. However, stress isn’t just a feeling or emotion in the moment, it causes all sorts of havoc with our bodies over the long term. Learn how your body responds to stress, how stress can impact your health over time, and how to manage stress to optimize your well-being both now and into the future.
The Stress Response
To understand how we respond to stress, it’s helpful to understand how our autonomic nervous system works, so here’s a little refresher. The autonomic nervous system controls and regulates our internal organs without any conscious effort, and it also regulates our stress response. It has three parts: the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric nervous systems.
- The parasympathetic system is often referred to as the “rest and digest” state. It’s a state of calm in which the body and brain are relaxed, and all systems are fully functioning.
- The sympathetic system is often referred to as the “fight or flight” state, is designed to respond to acute stress. When we evolved as humans, this system was designed to arm us to survive in threatening situations. When faced with a perceived threat, the sympathetic system causes the heart to beat fast; as your body directs blood to muscles and lungs, your pupils dilate to see better, and body systems that aren’t immediately essential, like digestion and reproduction, shut down.
- The enteric system is the fundamental nervous system of the gastrointestinal system. It regulates secretions in the gut and controls movement of food through the digestive system. While it can act independently of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, it is often influenced by them. If the body is not stressed and is in a parasympathetic state, the enteric nervous system functions as intended – digestion and absorption of nutrients happens as it should. If not, it becomes disrupted and so do gastrointestinal functions.
Turning Off the Stress Switch
Your body was designed to respond to acute stress by shutting down unnecessary systems so that it can focus on critical systems to fight a perceived threat. It’s a normal response, but it’s only healthy if the body can return to a parasympathetic state soon after the threat is over. As many of us know, that isn’t always the case. When stress is ever present in our lives and we can never take the time to return back to a calm state of rest and digest, our bodies become chronically stressed and “stuck” in the fight or flight state.
When our bodies feel constantly stressed, they are constantly triggered to release stress hormones. Over time, the constant circulation of stress hormones throughout the body makes our adrenal glands tired and desensitized which can have detrimental effects on the body in both the short and long term.
Long Term Effects of Stress
You may have felt some of the short-term effects of stress, like an upset stomach, trouble sleeping, sugar or carbohydrate cravings, inability to focus, and getting sick easily. But these symptoms compound and manifest to cause complications that can become more severe in the long term.
Compromised Gut Function
Stress causes changes in the composition of bacteria (the ratio of good to bad bacteria) in the gut which can lead to imbalances and intestinal permeability (leaky gut). Stress also slows digestion which can contribute to the development of other GI conditions like GERD, peptic ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
Stress causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol which can contribute to metabolic dysfunction and weight gain. In addition, stress and cortisol dysregulation can lead to sugar and carbohydrate cravings which further exacerbate the maintenance of a healthy weight.
Because stress affects the gut and up to 80% of the immune system is in the gut, ongoing stress can have a negative impact on immune health. Stress may not just impact our short-term immune function, it can have lasting implications for maintaining optimal immune recognition of healthy cells, tissues, and organ systems.
It can be a vicious cycle, chronic lack of sleep leads to stress, and stress can further impact your ability to fall and stay asleep thanks to the impact it has on hormone balance and the state of your nervous system.
There are many ways to manage stress, from practicing meditation and breathing to supplementing with adaptogenic herbs like those found in our Stress Remedy™ formula. For more ideas, check out 8 Ways to Naturally Reduce Stress.
Stress is inevitable, but by actively managing it to limit chronic stress and help your body return to a parasympathetic state, you can reduce the risk of many of the .