The brain is a complex organ, possibly capable of performing up to 100 billion tasks per second. However, the brain is equally limited in some ways, including the inability to distinguish psychological from physical stress.1
As a response to acute stress, the body triggers a necessary cognitive stimulus to keep an individual functioning. Such a reaction is positive stress, as the body is perceiving the experience of stress as a warning and reacting accordingly by readjusting various physiological mechanisms. For example, the body would adjust if a pedestrian needed to move out of the way of a car than ran a stop sign, or, in the case of early human populations, running from a wild animal that posed a lethal threat.
Stress-induced physiological changes activate the sympathetic nervous system, leading to the commonly known “fight or flight” response responsible for dodging oncoming cars and evading a wild animal attack.2 The fight or flight response leads to the release of stress hormones, including epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol.3
Chronic stress due to factors like traffic, relationships, or exam results can create a similar physiological response as caused by life-threatening physical situations. But if stress persists for a long time without periods of homeostasis, or balance, the physiological consequences are as if the body is constantly fighting for survival.
When is Stress “Good” and When Is It “Bad”?
Fundamentally, the physiological stress response is crucial to human survival and productivity. If stress did not motivate people to complete tasks, little would get accomplished. Stress provides incentive, if sometimes subconscious, for life events like work, school, and even workouts.
Unfortunately, many individuals experience their acute stress transform into chronic stress over time, whether due to poor stress management or other lifestyle factors. The effects of chronic stress can be subtle; most patients are not aware of the fact that excessive cortisol production from a perpetual stress response is wreaking havoc on their bodies.4
What Are the Common Effects of Stress?
The chronic elevation of stress hormones, such as epinephrine and cortisol, has a myriad of negative effects on the body.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that interferes with carbohydrate, protein, and lipid metabolism. By inducing the breakdown of proteins and production of fat, cortisol can dramatically increase a person’s weight, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure.5 Excess protein breakdown also leads to the degradation of collagen fibers, which results in stretch marks Additionally, stress-induced appetite changes are not uncommon, as patients dealing with chronic issues may turn to binge-eating for distraction.6 There is also a subset of patients that experience the opposite effect: anorexia and a total loss of interest in food.
Overall, chronic stress leads to metabolic modifications in the body that often result in considerable weight gain that in turn increases the risk for several other ailments.
Type II Diabetes
Type II diabetes is the most common metabolic condition worldwide. This disease takes millions of lives every year and costs the healthcare economy billions of dollars. Some of the risk factors for diabetes include:
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Chronic stress
- Blood hypertension
- Family history of diabetes
Studies show that there is a clear connection between the majority of these risk factors and the effects of stress and type II diabetes.7
Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella term that incorporates many illnesses, including coronary artery disease, heart failure, and peripheral artery disease. These health challenges are debilitating and may share similar risk factors with type II diabetes. The major driver is the chronic elevation of adrenergic hormones and cortisol, which promotes the vasoconstriction of blood vessels, forcing the heart to pump blood against higher pressures. Additionally, stress-induced obesity results in dyslipidemia – low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – further exacerbating the situation.8
Other Complications of Stress:
Stress is also associated with a high risk of:
- Neurodegenerative diseases (e.g. Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease)
- Gastrointestinal problems
What are Healthy Ways to Maintain a Healthy Stress Response?
Meditation and Yoga
The results of a 2014 meta-analysis showed significant stress relief after practicing meditation, with scientists concluding that “mindfulness meditation programs could help reduce anxiety, depression, and pain in some clinical populations. Thus, clinicians should be prepared to talk with their patients about the role that a meditation program could have in addressing psychological stress.”9
Another study published by the International Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the regular practice of yoga reduces feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety.10
Limiting Caffeine, Alcohol, and Nicotine
Stimulant substances can damage the body if consumed over a long period of time. Moreover, these products contain several addictive components, which can lead to physical and psychological dependence. Therefore, instead of relying on these substances to reduce stress, a more positive option may be calm-inducing activities, such as yoga, meditation, and music.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), exercise is the cheapest method to reduce stress and control anxiety levels.11 This effect is mediated by the release of stress-relieving hormones, such as serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine. Additionally, one of the following breathing exercises may help alleviate anxiety.
Prolonging the phase of exhaling is associated with the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for a “rest and digest” response.12 As a result, heart rate slows down, and breathing becomes more regular, reducing stress and anxiety.
Steps for a correct exhaling technique:
- Take a normal inspiration and exhale gradually until maximal expiration is reached
- Spend more time during the expiration phase. For instance, inhale for four seconds and exhale for five or six seconds.
- Do this exercise for 6 minutes.
Breathing correctly is an essential part of all types of yoga; however, pranayama takes breathing to another level.13 There are several exercises to improve respiration and reduce stress in this type of yoga, including equal breathing, lion breathing, and abdominal exercises.
Beginners should start with equal breathing, dividing the respiratory phase into two equal periods during which one either inhales or exhales.
This exercise focuses on forcing an exhale:
- Sit down in a cross-legged position.
- Put hands on knees while extending the arms.
- Breathe in through the nose.
- Exhale through the mouth while vocalizing the sound “ha.”
- During each inspiration, open the mouth as wide as possible and stick the tongue out.
- Rest the face during inhale.
- Repeat this exercise seven times.
Food choices play an important role in the physiological and metabolic responses of the body. For instance, a diet that is rich in whole foods, vitamins, and minerals reduces cortisol-release.14
While vitamin C has several health benefits, the vast majority of its positive effects are due to its potent antioxidative properties. In a 2015 study, scientists found that vitamin C reduces the severity of anxiety and stress, concluding that “a diet rich in vitamin C may be an effective adjunct to medical and psychological treatment of anxiety and improve academic performance.”15
Vitamins B1, B3, B6
While each B vitamin offers certain health benefits, they all have potent anxiety-reducing properties. In a large 2019 meta-analysis, scientists studied the influence of B vitamins on mood, stress, anxiety, and depression.16 Researchers deduced that “B group vitamin supplementation (either alone or with a multivitamin) may also benefit mood in healthy and at-risk individuals.”
Magnesium improves sleep by acting directly on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA), which is the central nervous system substrate responsible for stress regulation.17 By adapting autonomic, neuroendocrine, and behavioral responses to external stressors, magnesium can reduce feelings of anxiety and stress.
Kava kava has traditionally been used as a ceremonial herb to promote a sense of well-being. In one study, scientists tried to find a connection between this herb and symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).18 They found that “if this traditional extract of kava is confirmed as safe and effective, it will provide a significant ‘Level 1’ treatment option which may help sufferers of anxiety and provide significant support to use in a clinical setting.”
Curcumin – the active compound in turmeric – is an effective suppressor of certain proinflammatory pathways, which helps prevent chronic stress-induced dysregulation of neuroplasticity and depression.19 Turmeric supplementation reduces the risk of stress complications, such as neurocognitive disorders and depression by preventing damage to neurons and their synapses.
Similar to magnesium, ashwagandha works on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis to reduce cortisol secretion and reduce stress.20 This herb has a variety of other benefits, including sleep improvement.
Healthy Sleep Habits
Sleep disturbances (e.g. hypersomnia, insomnia) are associated with a constant state of alertness, which elevates cortisol levels. Chronic sleep deprivation is detrimental to the body.21 Several lifestyle modifications can improve sleep quality.
In a 2017 study, scientists found that diaphragmatic breathing (deep breathing) has the potential to improve cognition, reduce stress, and enhances attention span.22 People generally tend to ignore the benefits of this simple technique even though many researchers advocate for its efficacy.
Overall, there are a lot of factors that influence how the body experiences and responds to stress. Fortunately, individuals have control over these factors and can practice healthy stress management with a little bit of time, energy, and focus. Concentrating one’s efforts on lifestyle factors like self-care, physical activity, and diet choices is a great way to maximize a healthy response to stress.