Understand the physiology behind the stress response
The stress response follows two different routes. Richard Sutton explains it as “two distinct waves” in his book, The Stress Code, highly recommended. To boil it down to the basics you can consider how your weight responds to stress. Do you balloon like a blow fish? Or do you become as thin as a rake?
The first wave of physical stress
The first wave stimulates sympathetic-adrenal-medullary (SAM) axis. This is like your first responders in the event of an emergency. This process begins in the brain, within the amygdala or your “fear centre”. Messages travel to the hypothalamus, your “command centre”. Now the hypothalamus signals adrenalin release from the adrenal glands, on top of your kidneys. Adrenalin secretion increases blood pressure, heart rate and respiration so that circulation to the brain and major muscles are improved. Your immune response improves together with your sense sight and smell.
For your body to manage these changes, some things go neglected. Adrenalin directs blood away from the skin, digestive and reproductive systems, because glowing skin and digestion is at the bottom of the priority list now. This explains why you look pale or experience digestive symptoms, like bloating or constipation, during stressful periods. And even if you feel well able to cope and perform, these symptoms may be the first indication that you body is under stress.
Decreased circulation to the digestive system influences the functioning and movement, peristalsis, of the digestive organs. This in turn can affect the bacterial colonies within the gut too. These changes impairs healing and growth both in adults and children. The effects are concerning when adolescents are exposed to stressful situations for extended periods of time. It may contribute to impaired growth and predispose children to developing pain syndromes and health problems later in life.
When you get caught in this wave you’ll lose weight without trying to.
The second wave of physical stress
Following this adrenalin wave that crashes through the body, the brain signals secretion another hormone, cortisol, also from the adrenal glands. This is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Adrenalin and cortisol work together to boost the immune system, for a short period of time. Where adrenalin mobilised the immune system, like getting all the soldiers ready for action, cortisol regulates immune function, adding strategy to the soldier’s fight against intruders. Cortisol has the opposite effects when your body is exposed to high levels for a long period of time. Then it does the opposite and suppress the immune system. This may cause bacterial or viral infections after a stressful period.
Long term elevation of cortisol can cause your body to become resistant to the effects of cortisol. This may lead to auto immune disorders, by suppressing the immune system or failing to regulate is completely. Cortisol also causes:
- increased activity, like fidgeting
- disrupted sleep
- demineralization of bones
- muscle breakdown
- increased gastric acid (heartburn & reflux)
- increased appetite
- decreased sensitivity to insulin
- reduced growth hormone levels
- weight gain (if you get caught in this wave you’ll gain weight, no matter how hard you try to lose it)