When we feel stressed, our fight-or-flight hormones surge into action, flooding the body with adrenaline and cortisol, which elevate our heart rates and blood pressure and encourage the release of glucose – our body’s primary form of energy - into the bloodstream.
While our ancestors used those stress hormones to dredge up the energy to run – usually to escape some kind of wild animal – our contemporary stressors usually don’t require us to run away, even if we’d love nothing more than to flee our stressful day at the office.
So while our contemporary stress factors are nothing like those prehistoric events, our bodies see each of the little things each day that stresses us out – traffic, a morning spent bribing your 6-year-old out of wearing her ballerina outfit on the first day of school, coffee spilled over the computer keyboard – much as a tiger about to attack right as we’re trying to draw our latest hieroglyphic.
And what ends up happening is a pretty dangerous business.
What happens when we’re stressed?
When we experience stress, the hypothalamus sends an alarm to the adrenal glands, signaling them to release the fight-or-flight hormones, especially adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline, according to the Mayo Clinic, elevates both heart rate and blood pressure as it boosts energy supplies. Cortisol sends glucose (stored in the liver and muscles) into the bloodstream, so we have the energy we need to escape. (Ref. 1)
Given that today’s stressors no longer require the energy that glucose provides, we don’t immediately use it, so it stays in the bloodstream, leading to elevated blood sugar. While blood sugar levels will eventually go down – our entire body uses glucose to function - chronic stress can lead to chronic high blood sugar, which can eventually cause type 2 diabetes.
Why is chronic stress a problem?
During certain stressful situations – a car runs a red light, creating a near-miss accident or you temporarily lose sight of your child at the park – when the threat is over hormone levels, heart rate and blood pressure return to normal levels.
But those stressors are rare, and for many people, stress can be a constant as we race from home to work to the grocery store to the gym and back home again, squeezing in myriad other activities including taking the kids to football and ballet practice and canning the umpteenth batch of tomatoes from the bumper crop we grew in this year’s garden.
Chronic stress leads the fight-or-flight response to stay turned on, creating chaos in almost all the body’s organs and putting you at an increased risk of not only diabetes but also a wealth of health problems including heart attacks, strokes and high blood pressure.
But that’s not all.
Increases anxiety and depression
Those who live with high levels of stress not only have an increased risk of anxiety – stress hormones fuel feelings of nervousness – they can also be at a higher risk of developing depression.
According to researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, mice that were put into stressful situations showed symptoms of depression, such as giving up things they enjoyed and taking more time to eat meals. (Ref. 2)
“I think the findings fit well with the idea that stress can cause depression or those stressful situations can precipitate depression,” said lead researcher Heather Cameron in an interview with TIME magazine.
The Shrinking Brain
According to researchers at Yale University, big stressful events such as the loss of a job or the end of a marriage – might reduce the grey matter in the regions of the brain associated with emotional responses, essentially shrinking the brain. (Ref. 4)
The study, which appeared in the journal Biological Psychiatry, suggests that the impact of stress on the brain could lead to future psychiatric problems, researchers said.
Tips to manage stress
If you’re feeling stressed, it’s important to get it under control to protect your health.
Exercise. Moving can help use up excess blood sugar and will make you better able to manage stress when it arises. Yoga can be an especially helpful way to target stress, experts say.
Eat right. Eating a balanced diet will help your body function at its best, and one that avoids high levels of caffeine which can help prevent inducing feelings of stress.
Meditate. Taking an opportunity to tune out can ease the nagging thoughts that keep us feeling stressed, experts say.
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