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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 a gray area, something we can’t measure and so it becomes something we think we can’t do too much about.
Think again – we already have wearable sensors that detect shifts in stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. There are wearable sensors for our heart and neurological balances. We have apps for the smart phones that will let you know about one’s stress at any given moment. The apps are being programmed to give you an idea how the food you just ate is impacting your health long-term. Heart specialists have been giving their patients wearable monitors for several years.
Even with that technology 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 many concrete ways stress is possibly the most dangerous toxin your body faces every day.
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.
Early life events determine your set point for stress.
Research shows that even very early childhood events “set” your CRH (corticotrophin-releasing hormone), at a high or low-level. CRH is like the foot on the gas revving up your adrenals, and therefore your stress levels.
Stress causes brain damage.
High levels of stress hormones damage critical parts of the brain as in your 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, has to turn off the adrenals.
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 dormant infections (existing but not developed). Many people who get cold sores know this from experience.
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 the damage is reversible over time, as stress fades.
Stress reduces your ability to metabolize and detoxify.
Studies have shown that the activities of hundreds of genes are responsible for producing metabolic enzymes (those enzymes your body produces). These specific enzymes are necessary to break down fats and clear your body of the toxic side effects of prescription drugs or undigested foods. Stress can also increase your toxin burden by increasing your desire in eating synthetic fats and sugar foods. You may wonder why synthetics? Manmade foods are chemicals to your brain. It gives the feeling of cocaine or to psychological nervous activity.
Your cardiovascular system responds to stress, increasing cardiac output as if you have to run away from danger.
Chronic stress has been shown to increase the thickness of the artery walls, leading to high blood pressure and heart disease.
Stress creates disorder to your sex hormones.
Stress increases the amount of something called sex hormone binding globulin (SHGB). It is produced mostly by the liver but can also be found in the brain, uterus, testes, and placenta. This means there will be fewer hormones available to your cells. Chronic stress also increases the production of cortisol, from the adrenal and in turn limits the other necessary hormones to your system. I like to teach that when you produce cortisol it becomes the only hormone available. Another way of saying this is when cortisol is in the hormone cascade the other hormones cannot become part of that same process.
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.
Your 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. Add to that our largest immune system is located in the gut. Now 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, which then leads to inflammation, food sensitivities and autoimmune disease.
Stress during pregnancy.
“Who you are and what you’re like when you’re pregnant will affect who that baby is,” says Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins University. “Women’s psychological functioning during pregnancy – their anxiety level, stress, personality — ultimately affects the temperament of their babies. It has to the baby is awash in all the chemicals produced by the mom.” How does a mom’s stress get passed onto her fetus? Researchers aren’t exactly sure which stress responses play the largest role, but it’s clear that when a pregnant woman experiences anxiety, her body produces chemicals that affect the baby, too. Her nervous system, for instance, stimulates the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine, stress hormones that constrict blood vessels and reduce oxygen to the uterus.
Now that you know how stress impacts your body, what to do about it becomes the real question.
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