The Effects of Chronic Stress on the Body and the Brain
What is chronic stress?
Chronic stress is a type of stress that is experienced over a prolonged period of time, as opposed to acute stress, which is experienced briefly. The body’s reaction to stress is meant to protect us from predators and other threats.
What happens when we encounter a stressor?
Here is what happens in your brain and in your body in response to a stressor: a region of the brain called hypothalamus sends signal to the body’s adrenal glands, which then release stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol acts to increase glucose levels in the bloodstream and enhances the brain’s ability to use glucose, and also plays a role in increasing tissue repair. Adrenaline is the hormone involved in the “fight or flight” response to stress: it increases the heart rate and blood pressure, and dilates the airways in order to prepare you to defend yourself or run away. Together, adrenaline and cortisol are key players in the “alarm system” that is crucial for our survival. When the stressor is gone, our hormone levels and the physiological processes in our bodies return to normal.
What happens to our bodies under chronic stress?
It seems that stressors are omnipresent in our daily lives, often in the form of mounting responsibilities, work deadlines, traffic jams and exams. When we are constantly bombarded with stimuli that we perceive as stressful, the “fight or flight” alarm system stays activated in the long-term and can be very damaging for our brains and our bodies. Here is a summary of the detrimental effects of chronic stress on our health:
- Chronic stress increases the risk of cardiovascular disease
There is no question that stress can exert immediate physiological effects on the cardiovascular system. Picture yourself in a stressful situation, such as being stuck in traffic and late to work. Your heart is racing and just in an instant, you begin to feel anxious and overwhelmed. Sometimes the level of stress is so great that you can feel as if you are experiencing a mini heart attack. Since stress makes our heart and blood vessels work harder, and it’s not surprising that long-term exposure to chronic stress can be detrimental to the cardiovascular system. In fact, long-term stress can increase the risk of hypertension, heart attack and stroke. In addition, high stress levels may trigger us to turn to smoking or drinking alcohol as coping mechanisms, which can further increase our chances of developing cardiovascular disease.
- Chronic stress can interfere with your memory
Have you ever noticed that you tend to forget things when you are stressed? In fact, chronic stress can cause changes in certain brain regions such as the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for memory storage. According to research, chronic release of stress hormones impairs the ability of the hippocampus to encode and retrieve memories. Basically, this means that stress can interfere with our abilities to make new memories and to recall the ones we had already made. In addition, long-term chronic stress can cause insomnia and since sleep is very important for memory formation, lack of sleep due to stress can wreak havoc on the memory and on our ability to concentrate.
- Chronic stress can make you gain weight
Exposure to chronic stress can play a big role in weight gain. Have you ever noticed that in times of high stress, you tend to comfort yourself with calorie-rich foods, such as pizza and ice cream? This is because the hormone cortisol can influence our appetite and even our food preferences. Specifically, increased levels or cortisol can also increase insulin levels, making our blood glucose levels drop and also making us crave foods high in sugar and in fat. In turn, eating these foods can have a direct, calming effect on us and can even become a source of solace when we try to manage our stress levels. What does this all mean? More stress translates to higher levels of cortisol released in our bodies, which leads to bad eating habits and more belly fat.
- Chronic stress can depress your immune system
The immune system works hard to protect our bodies from invading pathogens and illnesses. Unfortunately, ongoing stress can make us more susceptible to illness by depressing our immune systems. How does this work? In a stressful situation, all of the body’s energy is directed towards defending itself or escaping, and the surge of stress hormones released from the adrenal glands works to temporarily decrease the function of certain organ systems, including the digestive system, reproductive system and the immune system. If the body is continuously exposed to chronic stressors, the immune system stays in low gear and this makes us more susceptible to getting sick.
Eugenia Petoukhov is a Canadian-based researcher and scientific writer. She is particularly interested in the inner workings of the brain, as well as in molecular and experimental medicine.
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