What is Stress?
Plain and simple: stress is the body’s response to a potentially dangerous situation. Stress tells the body something is wrong through the release of chemicals and hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline from the body’s sympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is made up of a network of nerves, brain structures and hormones, and together they work to regulate heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure in the presence of stress. (1)
This stress response is known as the “fight-or-flight” response, and its function is to ensure survival.
You’ve probably heard this example before: if you were being chased by a lion, this fight-or-flight response is what would kick in and tell you to stand your ground or get lost, quick!
In certain situations--like a house fire or even a job interview--this response helps bring focus to the task at hand in order to get through it safely. Digestion slows (eating is not top priority!), and glucose is pumped into the bloodstream for an extra boost of energy. (2)
When stress is acute, as in it derives from unpredictable or novelty situations (like a big speech or a car accident), the body jumps into fight-or-flight mode to get through the stressful situation.
But then after, it flips a switch and turns on the body’s “rest-and-digest” response - otherwise known as the parasympathetic nervous system.
Where the sympathetic nervous system is about quick bursts of energy and using up the body resources to move quickly, the parasympathetic slows everything down to maintain homeostasis: digestion increases and relaxes, heart rate and breathing slow down.
In a perfect world, your body is very well capable of jumping from one response to the other with no problem. The problem, however, is that our bodies weren’t meant to handle the chronic everyday stress that comes from modern living.
How Stress Causes Inflammation
When you’re constantly under stress or feeling anxious, it takes a physical toll on your body.
In a one-off stressful situation, your body prioritises the emergency (or the perceived emergency)at hand and suppresses “non-essential” functions such as digestion and immune response. But with chronic stress, the immune system releases pro-inflammatory cytokines to help with the perceived threat.
The problem is, it doesn’t matter to the body if it’s physical danger or emotional stress: all it sees is that something is getting to you and it needs to help out!
As stress continues, these pro-inflammatory cytokines are upregulated, meaning there’s more and more of them in your system, and that’s what triggers low-level inflammation in the body.
And we know that inflammation is an underlying factor to illness. Research shows that inflammation is a common pathway of stress-related diseases, like cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative diseases. (3)