Stress at the microbiological level
We’ve written at length regarding the physical ailments our bodies go through when chronic stress is a part of our life; when there is perpetual stress, the digestive, immune, and endocrine systems are compromised. We’ve also written in previous blogs that although it’s easy to identify others that are suffering from chronic stress, it is difficult to see it in our own lives.
Chronic stress wears many different masks. Any unresolved event or episode, no matter how small or large, leaves a trail of neurons on alert. This triggers and turns on the stress mechanism. Sometimes this is needed – like in the case where we need to quickly move out of the way to avoid a car accident. Many times however, the stress mechanism is initiated, when in reality it is not needed such as when we’re stuck in traffic or because a child is crying. These scenarios are so dangerous for our health for a couple of reasons. First – unless we are very aware of our behavior, the fact that we are stressed goes unnoticed. Second – because it goes unnoticed episodes of stress go unresolved, keeping the stress mechanism active. This entire process takes a toll on the body because of the chemical changes that chronic stress activates; chemical changes that are meant to be temporary. If however, we’re able to reconcile stressful events, our brain files that information as a useful lesson or experience in the frontal cortex, making us wiser and an overall better person.
Under normal circumstances, stress is normal and causes no harm when it’s initiated in circumstances where we’re under the threat of physical harm or when we experience something new. There is no age where stress begins as even a newborn can experience it when they are learning how to sleep. Once we learn from the experience or – in the case of life threatening situations – once the danger has passed the biochemistry of the brain and body return to normal.
The regions of the brain involved with the stress mechanism include the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, central nerves and amygdala. In all of these areas chemical changes take place that produce a temporary metabolic overdrive. During this process a series of hormones are generated, including adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol. Inhibiting neurotransmitters are also produced. Through neuron activity, messages are sent throughout the body that reach and stimulate specific glands. The adrenals are the most active glands that respond to stress as they turn up the production of adrenaline and cortisol during stressful moments.
Under conditions of chronic stress this process continues and has irritating and accumulative repercussions, creating an overload of powerful hormones throughout the body and brain. Since these hormones are meant to be use during short periods of time, prolonged periods of overproduction and exposure to these hormones damage brain cells. This affects the ability for several regions of the brain to work properly. All of the emotions and physical reactions that stress produce are set in motion by the chemical reactions that these hormones and neurotransmitters produce at the cellular level within the body and brain. Before going into a few specifics, I want to emphasize again that when functioning properly, the stress mechanism and the hormones and neurotransmitters produced during stress are beneficial. They can in fact improve memory, boost our metabolism, reinforce proper functioning of the brain and enhance creativity when the mind uses the experience for learning purposes. New circuitries and connections are produced and we become better people in the process. The key to all this however, is that learning in fact happens during these experiences. Learning can only come as we reconcile and close stressful episodes. When these events are left open and there is no closure, stress and all of the biochemical byproducts stay active, creating detrimental damage to the brain and body.
Cortisol is a steroid based hormone that is made by the adrenals whenever there is any level of stress. It is also produced whenever blood sugar is low. When cortisol is produced immune system activity decreases and bone formation slows down. Cortisol also helps process fat, proteins and carbohydrates. The production of this hormone occurs with the adrenals. The adrenals are controlled by the brain at the hypothalamus. Upon perceiving stress, the hypothalamus relays messages to the pituitary gland which in turn creates hormone messengers which are sent through the blood stream and reaches the adrenals, initiating the production of cortisol. Prolonged or accumulated levels of stress increase cortisol production. Apart from compromising the immune system, cortisol also adversely impacts the metabolism, increasing weight gain. As excess cortisol is produced, this hormone also reaches the brain at the hypothalamus with very powerful effects and destroys neurons in the brain, causing an internal imbalance. The damage the brain undergoes triggers stress because it is recognized as a threat that can have serious consequences on neuron function including impairing memory, learning/retention and long term memory.
Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, and norepinephrine hormones are also produced by the adrenal glands by stressful emotions such as excitement, loud noise, high temperatures and physical threats. The stimulus starts in the brain and is passed along via neurotransmitters and processed by the nervous system. Its effects include an increase in heart rate, pulse rate, blood pressure and glucose levels. Adrenaline also affects metabolic functions and dilates the lungs. Excess production creates cardiovascular problems (including high blood pressure) diarrhea and high intensity emotions such as aggression.
Neurotransmitters are important biochemicals that are also affected by the stress mechanism. Neurotransmitters are chemical message created by neurons in the brain. Endorphin is a neurotransmitter that is particularly affected by chronic stress. When chronic stress is present, large amounts of endorphin are produced in an attempt to control stress. This produces a ratio imbalance with other neurotransmitters. This imbalance creates additional stress and anxiety in the body, creating more additional chemicals triggering a cycle of perpetual overproduction of chemicals and increasing levels of stress. Without realizing it, this puts our bodies and minds in a state of typically associated with imminent physical danger – as if our lives were literally at risk. Emotions such as anger, resentment, anxiety, fear, irritation, constant grieving and continuously worrying all have a chemical impact around the tissues and organs in our body, as it the mind stays on a high state of alert. Often times this isn’t understood by the general public because we do a good job of hiding our emotions and create a false belief that feeling such negativity is normal, and that there’s nothing wrong with reacting so strongly to stressful situations. Interestingly enough though, we’re quick to recognize and point out the emotional roller coasters or turmoil of others.
Chronic stress also weakens the blood-brain barrier. The brain’s capillaries consist of more than 300 miles of arterioles that carry nutrients and oxygen to the neurons of the brain, while prohibiting toxins and other harmful substances from entering the brain. Excess cortisol compromises the blood-brain barrier, allowing chemicals and toxins to pass through as more the arterioles become more permeable.
Excess noise will also create stress. It’s important to regulate the volume of noise at home and in the car. Sudden, loud music initiates the stress mechanism, while calming music promotes tranquility. The brain also responds extremely quickly to images. Grotesque images in the news, movies or television such as rape, murder, mutilation, war, etc is not recommended in order to manage stress effectively.
Something important to understand is that for every stressful event or episode, there’s an opportunity to learn and grow. If dealt with correctly, and properly reconciled, other regions of the brain send counteracting hormones that calm the mind. Specific neurotransmitters are also produced to stop cortisol from reaching the hippocampus and other regions of the brain, keeping our minds clear and balanced. Benefits of reconciling stress include better sleep, improved creativity, better memory function and other physical benefits.
There are tools available to help keep our brain relaxed. The Phytotherapi Stress program contains natural products that help relax the mind and allows the body to balance the neurotransmitters in our brain. It’s a solution that has been used by thousands of people and has been proven to help the body and mind heal.