We’ve all experienced stress, it’s a normal reaction to emergencies or other serious events in life. Short-term, situation-related (acute) stress reactions to specific events can actually help us cope with the temporary issue at hand. But stress can become toxic when it’s chronic—ongoing daily heightened stress can take a serious toll on your health and negatively impact your overall wellbeing.
Being in a stressed state activates the central nervous system’s “fight or flight” response, which creates a cascade of neuro-endocrine-immune responses and tells the adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline. These two stress hormones immediately affect the cardiovascular and respiratory systems: they are what cause your heart rate to increase and your breathing to become shallow and rapid. This emergency response sends blood rushing to your muscles, heart, and organs. Oxygen is sent to your muscles, your blood vessels constrict, extra blood sugar is produced in the liver to increase energy, more acid is produced in the stomach, muscles become tense, and the immune system is stimulated.
All this is necessary for a physical response to an emergency, but when stress becomes chronic—constant reactions to regular annoyances, feeling under pressure, ongoing worries that we can’t shut off—it begins to damage various systems in our body. Toxic stress can cause damage to:
- The immune system, which becomes weakened. This makes you more susceptible to sickness and can make it harder to recover from viral and bacterial infections.
- The digestive system, which produces more acid. This can cause heartburn, acid reflux, and can increase ulcer symptoms. Chronic stress is also a factor in eating disorders, including both overeating under-eating, as well as making poor food choices (stress eating). In addition, when the liver is signaled to produce more sugar due to chronic stress, the risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases.
- The muscular system, which remains tense and tight. This can cause a myriad of symptoms from backache and headache to neck and shoulder pain as well as overall body aches.
- The reproductive system, which affects both men and women. Men can experience low testosterone and an increased risk of infection in male organs; women’s menstrual cycles can become heavier, more painful, or irregular.
- The cardiovascular system becomes overtaxed under chronic stress, increasing the risk for heart attack and stroke.
- The respiratory system, which is taxed by more rapid, shallow breathing, can make respiratory problems like COPD, asthma, emphysema, etc. worse by making breathing even more difficult.
In addition, toxic stress can lead to sleep disorders, depression, leaky gut and autoimmune disease. Leaky gut, which we discussed in a previous blog post, occurs when the stomach barrier system becomes permeable, allowing foreign particles into the bloodstream. While leaky gut can be healed, the unfortunate reality is that once you develop an autoimmune disease, you have it for life. But that doesn’t mean you have to suffer with constant flare-ups and symptoms—autoimmune diseases can be managed once the triggers are determined.
A report published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that at least 50% of autoimmune conditions are triggered by unknown factors, but “physical and psychological stress has been implicated in the development of autoimmune disease”. However, a number of studies have shown that as many as 80% of patients with autoimmune disease reported having “uncommon emotional stress” prior to the onset of autoimmune disease. The NIH report points out a somewhat vicious cycle: not only does stress cause autoimmune disease, but once diagnosed with autoimmune disease, patients’ stress levels increase significantly.
These findings led to the report’s conclusion that: “It is presumed that the stress-triggered neuroendocrine hormones lead to immune dysregulation, which ultimately results in autoimmune disease, by altering or amplifying cytokine production.” In such cases, chronic stress would be a likely culprit in triggering autoimmune flare-ups, so stress management and a better understanding of stress reactions would help these patients better manage their autoimmune condition while at the same time improving the health of their immune system.
Of course, diet and specific foods can also be triggers for autoimmune disease, so it’s important to pay close attention to any food-related reactions. Once a dietary trigger is determined, the food or foods should be eliminated from the diet permanently because your immune system remembers whatever it has an antibody against. For example, if your thyroid is reacting to gluten (a common food sensitivity that can also contribute to leaky gut), it can’t just be eliminated for a matter of weeks or months; any time you have gluten, your thyroid will react to it.
It’s important to note that there is no way to supplement your way around these necessary diet and lifestyle changes. Managing any autoimmune disease can be successfully accomplished by eliminating toxic stress and/or trigger foods permanently, which will also help to improve your overall health and wellbeing.