Community Health: How stress can impact our physical health

The sunset out at Hartney Bay was beautiful on the evening of April 8, 2017. Photo by Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson/The Cordova Times

By Barbara Solomon, LN, CNS
For The Cordova Times

“I started running whenever I get stressed. Now I’m somewhere in Chile and I need a ride home.” — Unknown

Stress. We all have it. And at times, it can feel overwhelming. But in reality, stress is nothing more than our bodies response to our environment. Or to put it another way, a stress response is triggered by something that requires our attention — be it emotional, physical, energetic or spiritual. Last week Susie Powell wrote a fantastic article about stress. Being that it is Stress Awareness month, let’s continue the discussion on how stress can influence our physical health.

We have all experienced periods of distress, but there is also “beneficial” stress. For instance, hiking the ski hill creates “metabolic stress” which causes the release of stored blood sugar to fuel the muscles and provide increased oxygen to the lungs. In this case, the outcome of stress is a stronger body and over time, greater endurance and adaptability. Another example might be that if you were injured, your body would release an anti-inflammatory stress hormone to allow you to heal. So, some stress is necessary to keep us healthy.

The issue with stress comes with its intensity and duration. Say we encounter a bear on our hike up the hill. We need to be able to react quickly, so our adrenals release hormones that allow us to run away or fight. Additionally, “nonessential” processes such as digestion, detoxification, cellular repair, hormone management, etc. are shutdown to shunt resources to areas where they are needed to keep us alive. Once we reach safety, we can relax and start the recovery process.

But what happens, if instead, our stress is just “everyday life?” Our nervous system doesn’t differentiate between the different types of stress, so over time, stress from unbalanced blood sugar, infection, vitamin or mineral deficiencies, pain, food sensitivities, environmental exposures, negative thoughts or emotions, anxiety, etc. can accumulate. Physiologically, this combined stress may appear no different to us than an actual bear encounter. And unfortunately, this stress then contributes to the very same underlying issues that caused it in the first place. A perpetual catch-22.

Since stress is a metabolically expensive process, left uncontrolled, it may end up burning through our nutrient stores. So, to maintain life, we have learned to adapt. We can slow down our metabolic rate by throttling back our thyroid or by reducing energy production at the cellular level. Unfortunately, that is also when symptoms may start to appear. We might notice fatigue, lower endurance, rising blood pressure, weight gain, weakened immune system, digestive issues, memory loss, problems with hormones or blood sugar, aging skin, anxiety or depression, etc. And if the stress finally overwhelms our defenses, we may need to metabolically “hibernate” until we are better able to manage it.

But it doesn’t have to get that far. There are things we can do to help put the brakes on runaway stress. First, it is important to uncover any underlying dysfunction or illness that may lead to stress. Next, we can survey our dietary and lifestyle choices. For instance, eating well composed, high quality meals throughout the day, eliminates the release of stress hormones necessary for blood sugar balance. Additionally, if we avoid the consumption of foods that degrade health and promote foods that enhance it, we can reduce stress while we improve our health.

Lifestyle management is also a powerful tool for stress reduction. Sleep inhibits the production of stress hormones giving us to time to recover. Exercise reduces stress hormones and stimulates production of endorphins, which together keep us relaxed and more tolerant to stress. Activities such as meditation are extremely beneficial. A 2018 study shows that using a meditation app reduced stress levels by 14% in just 10 days.

Even the way that you think can have an influence on your health. One study found that that people who think they are unhealthy are six times more likely to die earlier than those that believe they are in good health.  So, let’s eat healthy food, exercise, meditate, think good thoughts, and spend time with friends and family to help reduce stress and maintain good health.

Barbara Solomon is a Licensed Nutritionist at Ilanka Community Health Center. She is a specialist in adapting and applying food and nutrient knowledge to the solution of food and nutritional problems, the control of disease, and the promotion of health.