Stressor is the term used to describe any event that triggers the sympathetic nervous system and initiates the “fight or flight” response in your body. Stressors arise from anything related to your daily life – work, family, emotional, spiritual, financial, or physical. Although negative stressors are usually what comes to mind, stress can also be caused by positive stressors, like getting engaged or going for a hike on a sunny day. Stress describes the way your body and brain react to these stressors.
Stress can last from just seconds to however long your body is influenced by it. Stress can be a one-time issue, like cutting your finger, or it can be frequent, like having multiple daily workout sessions. However, it is long-term, low-grade negative stress, such as a burdening health decline, a persistent argument with a family member, or over-exercising and under-recovering that can be the most damaging.
Every living thing experiences stress from time to time, including plants and animals.
What happens in your body when you are exposed to stress?
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activates an acute stress response. This response is a fast cascade of events that involve neuron and hormone signals from the hypothalamus in the brain to the adrenal glands. The inner region of an adrenal gland, called the adrenal medulla, releases catecholamines, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, and these neurotransmitters in turn get your blood pumping and heart racing.
You will know you are in this fight or flight mode when you are taking shorter, shallower breaths and starting to sweat. Simultaneously, your muscles tense up and many of your senses, like vision and hearing, are on high alert. All of the SNS systems activated in a stress response remain activated to some degree in a chronic stress situation.
GI tract and the immune system
Although much immune activity goes on in your blood, the important role that your gut plays in your immune system can’t be overlooked. Although you encounter bacteria in the air, on objects you touch, and naturally on your skin, the most bacteria you are exposed to reside in your gut. The mix of these bacteria, both good and bad, plays a huge role not only in your digestive system but also in your immune system. In fact, it is estimated that 80 percent of your immune system might be located in your gut.
The protective lining in your gut, which includes epithelial cells and its mucosal lining, acts as a physical barrier to foreign invaders to your bloodstream, assisted by the principal immune-protective antibody, secretory immunoglobulin A (sIgA). Compromises in gut integrity, which can occur from nutrient deficiencies, free radical damage, antibiotic use, and inflammation, can allow more “bad” bacteria into your bloodstream. Acting in concert, the beneficial gut bacteria also play a major role in preventing pathogens from being absorbed
Your adrenal glands become overtaxed and under-function as stress continues.
The outer region of an adrenal gland, called the adrenal cortex, releases hormones essential for life. Cortisol, for example, regulates how the body converts fats, proteins, and carbohydrates to energy, and also helps regulate blood pressure and cardiovascular function. But cortisol can become elevated when the adrenal glands are overtaxed, resulting in elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, and abnormal cardiac function.
The adrenal cortex also releases aldosterone, a hormone that helps balance the amount of salt and water in the body, thus maintaining regular blood pressure. Smaller amounts of various sex hormones are also produced in the adrenal cortex that affect libido and reproduction.
The SNS is thought to be complementary to the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for “rest and digest” events. The PNS system does this by releasing acetylcholine, a catecholamine that decreases heart rate, in turn reducing blood pressure, relaxing muscles, and reversing other effects of the fight or flight response.
How bad is the bad kind of stress?Chronic stress will leave you feeling fatigued and worn out. You might experience occasional headaches, chest pain, and disturbed sleep. These effects can upset almost every system in your body, resulting in a wide range of dysfunctions, including loss of libido in men and women, upset stomach, irregular bowel movements, and a weakened immune system.1
Over time, these effects manifest themselves as issues with your blood vessels and heart. The constant added pressure on arterial walls from an elevated heart rate can cause these vessels to lose contractility, stiffen, and even harden, which can lead to coronary heart disease. Constant muscular tension creates wear and tear and allows only minimal time for the muscles to recover and rebuild. This can lead to atrophy or muscle wasting, chronic musculoskeletal conditions, discomfort, and pain.1
Chronic stress puts you at increased risk for weight gain and mental health issues too. Centralized obesity and increased blood sugar levels are some of the first signs of chronic stress, alongside mood changes, irritability, and depression. For the health of your whole body, it is in your best interest to reduce negative stressors and support your system from the stress you do incur.
How does your body turn the stress response off?
When you are stressed, your brain releases less of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid, also known as GABA.2 GABA release is necessary to start the process of reversing the fight-or-flight response. GABA – produced in the brain from glutamate – needs vitamin B6 to be synthesized. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning its main function is to inhibit or reduce the activity of nerve cells in the nervous system. In addition to helping put the brakes on the stress response, GABA plays a role in mitigating negative mood and supporting restful sleep.
What to do
While nature and nurture both play a role in how your brain and body responds to stressors, you can take an active role in mitigating the adverse physical effects stress has on your body.
Replace nutrients being used
Stress uses energy. Although calories are important, don’t forget about micronutrients. Because your system burns through vitamin C, magnesium, B vitamins (especially B6), and calcium, a varied diet with sufficient vegetables and fruits or nutritional supplements can help maintain nutrient levels. Similarly, stress causes damage to cells all over your body. Omega-3 fatty acids from salmon, tuna, or nutritional supplements, as well as additional antioxidants, including vitamin E, can support cell membranes and help maintain normal levels of inflammation.
Negative thoughts can even impact the immune system.
The good news is that happiness and a positive mood can support your immune system. Research has shown that pleasant emotions can increase sIgA while decreasing cortisol. There is also data to support the hypothesis that individuals who have a naturally negative outlook might be at greater risk for illness than individuals who have a naturally positive outlook.2
Support adrenal function
If the adrenal medulla is working overtime, then your adrenal cortex can be affected. Adaptogens can help a body adapt to this situation. Panax ginseng and Eleutherococcus senticosus can enhance the response to physical and chemical stress and provide a beneficial physiological effect on the central nervous, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems.* And ashwagandha, a botanical ingredient from India, supports the neurological system, immune function, energy production, the endocrine system, and the reproductive system.3 Astragalus membranaceus in combination with ginseng supports energy production and immune function to help fight the daytime whole-body fatigue from stress.
Nutrition for growth and strength
Amino acids and protein help keep your muscles fueled and support their recovery following times of high demand. You need at least 0.5-0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight, every day. For a 150-pound person, that is 75-120 grams of protein; athletes usually need more. Consider high-quality meat sources, dairy products or whey protein powder, and nuts and seeds.
Nutrients to help keep calm
Need help getting to sleep after a stressful day? Your brain may not be making enough of the neurotransmitters that shut the brain off from reliving the day. You can support sleep through GABA supplementation and by eating foods that promote production of the neurotransmitter serotonin and the amino acid tryptophan. Try consuming eggs, cheese, pineapple, tofu, or alpha-lactalbumin whey protein before going to bed.
- Schneiderman N, Ironson G, Siegel S. Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annu Rev Clin Psychol 2005;1:607-628.
- Hasler G, van der Veen J, Grillon C, et al. Effect of acute psychological stress on prefrontal GABA concentration determined by proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Am J Psychiatry 2010;167(10):1226-1231.
- Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty S. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress in adults. Indian J Psychol Med 2012;34(3):255-262.Morey J, Boggero I, Scott A, Segerstrom S. Current directions in stress and human immune function. Curr Opin Psychol 2015;5:13-17.