How Stress Affects Us All

How Stress Affects Us All
by Dr. Isabel Sharkar

You’ve likely heard that stress is the biggest culprit and it runs havoc on your body. But how does stress do that? It’s important to understand the mechanics of stress and how it truly affects our bodies. When the body is stressed your muscles tense up, which is a reflex reaction to stress.

When the stress passes your muscles, you release the tension. However, when you experience chronic stress, your muscles hold on to the tension. For example, if you’ve ever experienced tension-type headaches and migraines, it’s due to chronic muscle tension in your head, neck and shoulders.

Stress also affects the way you breathe. When you are on edge and feeling anxious, you may find yourself shallow breathing, which doesn’t allow a lot of oxygen to reach your lungs. Rapid breathing or hyperventilation can bring on a panic attack if you are prone to them. Relaxation and deep breathing exercises are extremely useful in flooding your body with oxygen and it’s absolutely free!

Your heart is also affected when you experience stress. Acute stress causes your heart to beat faster and pump more blood by having stronger contractions of the heart muscles. This is caused by the fight-or-flight stress hormones adrenaline (epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine), and cortisol. Your blood pressure also increases. When the stress passes, your body resumes to normal activity. However, with chronic stress that we experience in our day-to-day living, problems of the heart and blood vessels may arise, thus increasing the risk for hypertension, heart attack and stroke.

If that weren’t enough, stress also affects the

  • Adrenals – causing them to release cortisol. Chronic stress will eventually deplete cortisol levels and cause extreme fatigue. A salivary cortisol adrenal stress test gives great insight into how you handle stress.
  • Liver – with the release of cortisol and epinephrine, the liver produces more glucose to give you energy to deal with the immediate stress. Period liver cleanses are a great reset to stress.
  • Stomach- stress may give you “butterflies” in your stomach, nausea, pain and eventually ulcers. Your gut is your second brain, digestive enzymes and probiotics help fine tune your digestion and keep your gut flora happy.
  • Bowels – stress affects digestion, intestinal absorption of nutrients and may cause diarrhea or constipation.
  • Female reproductive system – stress may affect PMS, menstruation, sexual desire and menopause.
  • Male reproductive system – stress affects testosterone and sperm production, and may cause erectile dysfunction or impotence.

Although there is no avoiding stress, find effective coping mechanisms to deal with stress when it happens. Recognize the stress and acknowledge it, “I am feeling stressed right now because…” The more you pretend that you aren’t stressed and think that you handle stress very well, the longer you perpetuate taking responsibility to nurture your body. This avoidance is what can turn into chronic dis-ease.

We all love to think that we are invincible and although your spirit may be, your body is very sensitive. Lying to yourself won’t do you or your body any justice. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed does not mean that you are weak. The days you feel most stressed are the days you need the most tender love and self-care.

Workout, hydrate your body, avoid crutches like drinking, smoking and binge eating to alleviate stress, meditate, gratitude journal and have fun! This is your life journey. There will never be an end to your things to-do list, places you want to travel, things you want to buy or money you want to make. There will always be another destination, another benchmark and level to achieve. Happiness truly lies in the journey.

Dr. Isabel Sharkar is a licensed naturopathic physician and co-owner of Indigo Integrative Health Clinic, in Georgetown. For more information, call 202-298-9131 or visit IndigoHealthClinic.com

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