There are two types of stress: acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress, also known as eustress, is your body’s reaction to a relatively short threat. It’s the fight-or-flight response of your body. Acute stress releases the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine. After these hormones are released, they leave the body relatively quickly. This type of stress is positive, and can actually improve brain function.
Chronic stress, or distress, does not improve brain function. Its name suggests exactly what it is: long-term stress. It has serious negative health effects. Chronic stress causes the stress hormone cortisol to linger in the body. This leads to a number of problems, such as:
- memory loss
- anxiety and depression
- insomnia and lack of restful sleep
- poor nutrition
Have you ever noticed how many things you can’t remember when you’re stressed? It seems like certain details are just out of grasp. You might feel like you have less control over your emotions. Things that normally don’t bother you now upset you, and you may battle feelings of depression. You may always feel tired and rundown, even when you get a good night’s sleep. Or, you can’t seem to shut your brain down when it’s time for bed. Maybe you have a larger appetite and weight gain, or perhaps you have no appetite. All of these can be caused by chronic stress in your life.
Effects of Chronic Stress:
When we’re stressed, we lose brain activity. Cortisol leads to an excess of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Glutamate is usually used to transmit electrical signals. When too much is present, glutamate promotes the synthesis of free radicals. These are oxygen molecules that attack and kill cells. A loss of brain cells contributes to memory loss.
Chronic stress also causes parts of our brains to shrink. It stops the creation of new neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain largely associated with memory. It also reduces the electrical activity of the hippocampus. This means the source of our memories is slowing down, making it hard to remember.
Anxiety and Depression
While chronic stress slows down the hippocampus, it increases connections in another part of your brain: the amygdala. This is the fear center of the brain. Stress causes more activity in the amygdala, which means we are prone to be more fearful and anxious.
Stress also stops the production of new cells. Cortisol stops the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This protein is key to healthy brain cells and the creation of new brain cells. A reduction in BDNF means less production of new brain cells. This is linked to many mental illnesses, including depression, bipolar disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Depression is also linked to less serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters help regulate mood, appetite and motivation. Lowered levels of serotonin and dopamine leave us unhappy and unmotivated. This contributes to feelings of depression and anxiety, and it also causes you to have less control over your emotions. It can turn to a downward spiral of stress and anxiety.
Anxiety and depression can inadvertently lead to more memory loss and anxiety. Often when we’re depressed, we look for outside sources of comfort and happiness, like junk food and alcohol. These habits create more free radicals in our bodies, leading to memory loss. They also make us feel more stressed, increasing the activity of the amygdala to create more anxiety.
When we’re stressed, our minds race instead of shutting down at night. This inhibits important functions involved in memory, muscle repair and mood. When we don’t get enough sleep, our immune system falters just as much as when we’re stressed. But those aren’t the only things put out of whack.
Cortisol levels naturally drop during sleep, especially during the first four hours. A bad night of sleep doesn’t just make you feel lousy the next day, it keeps cortisol levels high well into the following evening!
Sleeping six hours or less per night can significantly increase stress hormones up to 80%. Working the night shift or staying up all night is a disaster for your health. It sabotages the restorative powers of sleep, increases cortisol and adversely affects work safety, performance and productivity.
At first, stress can shut down appetite. A structure in the brain called the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone, which suppresses appetite. But it’s a different story if stress persists. The adrenal glands release cortisol, which increases appetite and can ramp up your motivation to eat.
Stress also seems to affect our food preferences. Numerous studies have shown that physical or emotional distress increases intake of foods that are high in fat, sugar, or both. Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have an interesting feedback effect. They actually inhibit certain brain activities that produce and process stress and its related emotions. So, our stress-induced cravings occur partly because they counteract stress.
Of course, overeating isn’t the only stress-related behavior that can add pounds. Stressed people lose sleep, exercise less and drink more alcohol, all of which can contribute to becoming overweight.
Research has shown that some foods actually induce a state of stress. Here are some examples:
- excess amounts of sugar
- bleached flour
- foods poor in vitamins and minerals weaken the body’s resistance to the stress response.
- hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated foods (these have trans fatty acids, which leads to free radical damage to cells)
Here are the effects of negative eating habits:
- a high-fat diet (unhealthy fats) suppresses the immune system
- excess simple sugars deplete vitamin stores, particularly B-complex
- caffeine triggers sympathetic nervous system
- chronic stress depletes vitamins B & C
- high sodium may increase blood pressure
- excessive alcohol consumption may suppress the immune system
This is why it is more important than ever to do all you can to limit the effects of stress. It means your life.
However, we understand that it’s no fun experiencing stress-related symptoms. It’s no picnic for those around you either. We won’t leave you with all bad news and no solutions. Rest assured that minimizing stress and protecting your health against its effects is easier than you might think. Here are some simple tips to help reduce or stop stress and overcome its harmful effects.
Chronic Stress Relief:
Four Things to Stop Stress
- Improve Your Diet
Add foods that prevent stress. This means foods that are rich in antioxidants, such as berries, green vegetables, and green tea. Green tea actually contains ECGC, which is an enzyme shown to help reduce free radicals and inflammation. These foods help stop and reverse the oxidative damage that kills brain cells.
- Increase BDNF with Exercise
Exercise reverses the effects of cortisol on BDNF production. It actually increases production, thereby increasing the creation of new brain cells. Aerobic exercise can be as simple as going for a walk. Other types of exercise that contribute to an increase in BDNF are yoga, tai chi, and qi gong.
- Look to Nature’s Medicine
There are a variety of naturally occurring herbs that combat the effects of stress. Peppermint herb has a strong effect on depression and mental exhaustion that occur from stress. Licorice root helps with adrenal fatigue, which often occurs because chronic stress causes adrenal glands to constantly produce cortisol. These herbs can be taken alone, but they are also found in our Healing Blends LessStress and PeacefulCalm formulas.
- Get Enough Sleep
When we sleep, our cortisol levels go down, which means the effects of stress are reduced. Sleep also gives our bodies the chance to flush out toxins, restore brain function to improve memory and reduce anxiety, and help our immune system do its job.
It is important to eat properly, take the right supplements, get enough rest and actively remove daily stressors. However, incorporating these into your daily routine should not cause more stress! Allow yourself to have fun, enjoy life and be silly. The harmful effects of stress can be life threatening. No one should have to go through it alone. Use the tips and tools we offer and give yourself time to see the long-term effects. You can beat stress.