Most of us have come to realize that stress is a part of life. We experience it daily, and there’s no real way to stop it completely; however, how you deal with stress makes all the difference. Feeling unnerved or frazzled on a constant basis can wreak havoc on the body’s systems. Letting life’s everyday stressors get out of control will put you at greater risk for more serious health conditions. We know that psychological stress can lead to additional illnesses such as anxiety and depression, which in turn can lead to serious health problems like heart disease and make you more prone to infections. The main question has always been how? What is it about chronic exposure to stress that causes the body to go into defense mode and start to attack itself?
A research team at Carnegie Mellon University decided to look further into how stress leads to physical problems and illness. Their research found that it’s all to do with inflammation. A body that is under constant psychological stress loses its ability to regulate the inflammatory response, which is partly driven by the hormone, cortisol. If the body is unable to regulate this hormone, it is more susceptible to disease and illness.
An inflammatory response is what happens to internal tissue structures when the body is attacked by harmful stimuli like bacteria, heat, irritants, or other pathogens. When a part of the body experiences swelling, it’s because there are a series of chemicals released from the damaged cells which cause the blood vessels to leak fluid into the tissue. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that has a variety of different functions throughout the body. It’s produced from cholesterol in the adrenal glands and plays a role in stress response, blood sugar, and weight management, as well as the cardiovascular and GI systems, to name a few of its many aspects. Cortisol has a far-reaching response in the body.
Cortisol works to reduce inflammation in the body; however, if there is chronic stress (and thus chroic cortisol), the body is prone to illness which in turn leads to inflammation. When the body is under constant stress or illness, cortisol gets overworked and the immune system becomes suppressed (less functional). Raised cortisol levels in the body can cause even more problems. Aside from the fact that the immune system would no longer be working up to par, the other systems cortisol works with would be affected as well, leaving you at greater risk for infection and disease, increase your risk of cancer, and greatly affect the gastrointestional system.
This is why learning to cope with stress in a healthy way is vitally important for overall health. While the body is made to be able to sustain a fair amount of stress with the fight-or-flight system (which is also fueled by cortisol), it’s not built to withstand psychological stress on a constant basis.