What we think and feel, and how long we think it or feel it, determines our health. The science is strong, and yet so often stress is considered an amorphous gray area, something we can’t put our finger on or measure, and so it gets dismissed as not being “real.”
In the not-very-distant future, I believe wearable sensors will be able to detect shifts in stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in real time. You will be able to place an invisible sticker on your wrist, open an app on your phone, and see how the cheeseburger you just ate, or the conversation you had yesterday, impacts your stress response. When that happens, the gray area will become very black and white.
Even when we have that technology however, connecting the dots between knowing your hormone levels and changing your behavior will come down to understanding how those hormones impact your body and your life.
Here are 10 concrete ways stress is possibly the most dangerous toxin your body faces every day.
1. Stress changes gene expression.
The chemicals your body produces when you are under stress turn on or off of genes that change everything from how much fat you store, to how well your immune system works, to how fast you age, to whether or not you will develop cancer.
2. Early life events determine your set point for stress.
Research shows that even very early childhood events “set” your CRH, or corticotropin releasing hormone, at a high or low level. CRH is like the foot on the gas turning on your adrenals, and therefore your stress levels.
3. Stress causes brain damage.
High levels of stress hormones damage critical parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus, the area responsible for memory. One reason people experience “adrenal burnout” after long term chronic stress, is because the brain, in order to save itself, turns off the adrenals.
4. Stress shuts down the immune system and increases inflammation.
From slowing wound healing, to diminishing the protective effects of vaccines, to increasing your susceptibility to infections, stress is the ultimate immune-modulator. Stress can also reactivate latent infections — people who get cold sores know this from experience.
5. Chronic stress damages the energy powerhouses of your body, your mitochondria.
These energy factories produce ATP, the currency through which all cells and organs in your body do their work. The good news is this damage is reversible over time, as stress goes away.
6. Stress reduces your ability to metabolize and detoxify.
Studies have shown that the activity of hundreds of genes responsible for enzymes that break down fats and detoxify prescription drugs, are negatively impacted by stress. Stress can also increase your toxin burden by increasing your desire for high fat, high sugar foods.
7. Your cardiovascular system responds to stress, increasing cardiac output if you have to run away from a tiger.
But chronic stress has been shown to increase the thickness of the artery walls, leading to high blood pressure and heart disease.
8. Stress messes with your sex hormones.
Stress increases the amount of something called sex hormone binding globulin, the school bus that ferries testosterone and estrogen around your body, meaning fewer of these hormones are available to your cells. Chronic stress also increases the production of cortisol, leading to something called “cortisol steal,” where fewer sex hormones are produced.
9. Stress is bad for your bones and muscles.
There is evidence that higher stress levels are associated with lower bone mineral density, and many studies show that people under chronic stress experience more physical pain.
10. The gut and stress are intimately intertwined.
You may have heard that 95% of your serotonin is in your gut, and you may remember a time when you were nervous or sad, and your belly was in knots.
But more research is showing how stress impacts the function of your gut every day. It slows transit, leading to constipation and the re-circulation of hormones like estrogen through your liver. It increases the overgrowth of bad bacteria. And it loosens the barriers between the cells that line the intestines, creating something called leaky gut, that then leads to inflammation, food sensitivities and even autoimmune disease.
OK, so now that you know how stress impacts your body, what to do about it becomes the real question. Enter functional medicine, in which we look at the body as an interconnected matrix. We then recommend ways of modifying and supporting each aspect of the matrix, so that the system comes back into balance.
If this is an are of your life that you hope to improve, I recommend that you find a functional medicine physician who can help you bring your body back into balance.