Stress has been shown time and again to be a major influence on mood, physical health, mental health, and behavior. Persistent stress can make you generally more susceptible to physical and psychological problems, and it can be a precursor to many illnesses. Stress-induced inflammation is something that everyone should be made aware of so that the prevention of many diseases, as well as recovery from them, can happen at the causal level.
Chronic Illness and Stress-Induced Inflammation
We are all equipped with the ability to neutralize stress through a series of stress responses that are fast and efficient enough to prevent damage to our physical and psychological health. However, when acute stress turns into chronic stress, it increases our health risks significantly.
There are many physical disorders that have been connected to stress, including:
- Cardiovascular problems like hypertension, strokes and heart attacks
- Immune system disorders like HIV and AIDs, herpes, colds and flus
- Different types of cancers
- Autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis and lupus
- Skin problems like rashes, hives and dermatitis
- Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders like irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, ulcerative colitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Neurological disorders (like Parkinson’s)
- Sleep disturbances
Psychological problems like depression, anxiety, and panic attacks are also very commonly linked to chronic stress.
The interesting thing that not many people are made aware of by their doctors is that the inflammation that is induced by the chronic stress is actually what creates the environment for these problems to develop, including the psychological issues mentioned above.
But, what exactly is stress?
Stress is a force or state of tension, pressure or strain imposed by a stressor. A stressor is a stimulus that creates stress and it can be psychological or physical. All kinds of stress will have a physiological effect on the body in the form of the body’s stress responses.
Not all stress is bad. In fact, some types of stress are healthy and needed, such as stress caused by moderate exercise. For our purposes, we are going to focus on unhealthy and excessive stress.
Physical stressors include:
- Viral or bacterial infections
- Hormonal changes
- Unstable sugar levels
- Consumption of caffeine, sugar
- Consumption of allergenic foods (gluten, dairy)
- Certain medications
- Alcohol, drugs or smoking
- The effects of an illness
- Aches and pains (like migraines or dental problems)
- Environmental toxins
- Unhealthy diets
- Extreme dieting
- Lack of sleep
Psychological stressors include:
- Financial worry
- Work pressure
- Academic exams
- Family problems
- Relationship problems
- Death or loss of loved ones
- Dealing with difficult people
- The psychological stress of being physically unwell
- Going through a traumatic event (theft, violence)
All of these stressors can elicit an acute stress response, but if they are not resolved and the stress response is constantly switched on, the stress becomes chronic and opens the body up to many problems, including stress-induced inflammation.
Stress and Homeostasis
One very important factor in health and even survival is the ability of the body to maintain homeostasis – the equilibrium between different organs and systems. Stress is a threat to the maintenance of this homeostasis.
Depending on the stressor, different patterns of stress responses are elicited. Also, different people will have different stress responses to the same situation.
For example, some people will have a more adverse reaction to a stressful situation, especially if the situation does not allow for an active response like fight or flight to actually be effective. These aversive reactions will typically involve the sympathetic nervous system, an inhibition of movement and the blood shunting from the periphery of the body. This is also called a vigilante response.
On the other hand, some people will have a more active coping mechanism to stress, such as the fight or flight response, which helps them either defend themselves or run away from a threat by increasing hormonal, metabolic and autonomic functions that enhance their muscular capabilities.
Most stress responses are integrated, and everyone is capable of both types of response. Although the pattern of the stress response that shows up largely depends on the situation itself, there is a certain personal tendency that is determined by genetic, developmental and environmental factors.
Studies in rats and dogs have shown that those that were nurtured consistently by their mothers early on have lowered stress responses and less anxiety than those that were not.
The mechanisms of homeostasis are sophisticated enough to help the body deal with acute stress without much damage to the system, especially for younger, healthier people. Those who suffer from illnesses already, are in weak health or are older tend to have a higher health risk when exposed to stress.
This is especially true if the stress becomes more consistent. Even younger, healthier individuals are at risk of disease and psychological issues, in that case, find this
Other elements also play a role in how susceptible an individual becomes to the diseases and stress-induced inflammation. Hereditary factors, upbringing, early life experiences, the meanings given to certain situations, constitutional composition, and access to health care (including psychological support) all have a part in how vulnerable an individual is to the harmful effects of stress.
Before diving into these harmful effects, how they affect each other, how they trigger illness, and how to deal with them, we need to have a good understanding of how your body deals with stress.
The Body’s Global Response to Stress
The body has many different organs and systems that work together to fight stress. They are all part of the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response, which is composed of six organ/system circuits that are all affected by chronic stress and stress-induced inflammation. We will go through each of these circuits and how each of them responds to stress and their association with inflammation.
The Hormone Circuit and Response
The adrenal glands, the thyroid and the gonads (male testes and female ovaries) regulate, through the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis as well as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the hormone response. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain send signals to these organs to produce or stop producing their hormones.
As we will discuss in more detail below, the adrenals are responsible for secreting the body’s main anti-stress hormone, cortisol. With consistent stress and stress-induced inflammation, your adrenals will weaken and become unable to handle the stress, causing a very common yet usually under-diagnosed condition called Adrenal Fatigue Treatment