Stress is a fact of life. We all experience it most days. Some of us have higher stress levels than others. And we can have different types of stress, which affect our bodies in different ways. But how can you know if you are too stressed? What signs can you look for? What behaviors might be leading to increased or unnecessary stress?
Good stress, bad stress
First of all, not all stress is totally bad. The father of stress theory, Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Seyle, defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand, whether it is caused by, or results in, pleasant or unpleasant conditions.”
Seyle classified stress into two categories: distress (negative) and eustress (positive). Yes, there is such a thing as good stress! Eustress makes us feel invigorated, excited, and fulfilled. It can be physical or mental in nature. Some examples of eustress are learning a new skill, working out, traveling, or taking on an exciting challenge at work. These kinds of stress are beneficial to your body and mental well-being.
While eustress is empowering, distress is debilitating. This is the stress we’re most familiar with. Negative stress overwhelms us and depletes us emotionally and physically. Professor Seyle
found that physiological stress can damage the endocrine (hormone) system. In fact, distress leads to a host of health issues you probably weren’t aware of.
Types of stress
There are four primary types of stress we encounter every day. They are:
Physical stressors could be an injury, such as an ankle sprain or being in a car accident. Emotional stress includes our personal relationship issues, financial strains, or workplace problems. Chemical stressors impact us internally through things like heavy metal exposure, food poisoning, or elevated insulin. Electromagnetic stress
is a relatively new but potent cause of distress. We’re surrounded by sources of electromagnetic stressors like cell phones, TVs, microwaves, radio towers, and power lines. All these different kinds of stress cause your body to make cortisol.
The concern with cortisol
Cortisol is a hormone the body produces in response to any type of stress. In and of itself cortisol isn’t bad, it’s actually a normal reaction and needed for our survival as it fosters the fight-or-flight response which helps us flee or face a dangerous situation. However, chronic negative stress produces waves upon waves of cortisol which do have a tremendous impact on our health.
Cortisol turns off some non-essential functions in the body so you can use your energy for your immediate needs. Our functions of digestion, detoxification, reproduction, cell repair, and the immune system are all reduced in the presence of cortisol.
The digestive system is turned off when cortisol floods your bloodstream, and cortisol works against the integrity of your gut lining. If you have partially digested food sitting in your gut during a stress event, those food particles may leach through your intestinal walls, leading to leaky gut
. When your gut lining has holes, toxins, bacteria, and pieces of food escape the intestines and cause inflammation. Your microbial flora can get out of balance too, and lead to other intestinal problems like IBS or even body-wide autoimmune disorders and allergies.
All that would be reason enough to reduce your stress, but cortisol does so much more. Because cortisol is a glucocorticoid (a hormone involved in glucose regulation), it directs the body to release glycogen stores which results in elevated blood sugar. If you were having a physical stressor that required some kind of action, the extra glucose would be burned up. But if the stressor is emotional in nature, the glucose gets converted to triglycerides and sent back to storage in the abdominal area as fat. That’s bad news, but the abdomen has cortisol receptors and belly fat is also highly inflammatory. Inflammation sets off the cortisol receptors and triggers the cycle all over again.
During a stress response, your body’s detox functions are put on hold. But without your detoxification system running at full capacity, your body has trouble clearing some stressors, especially chemical ones. So the stressor lingers in your body, cortisol continues to suppress your detox response, and your body struggles to get back to normal levels.
Not only are your detox processes hindered, but your immune system is also hamstrung by cortisol surges. Chronic negative stress lowers your immune strength, and that can lead to frequent infections and even cancers.
There is also a phenomenon known as “cortisol steal.” Since cortisol production takes priority (it’s a survival hormone for the fight/flight response, after all), your body will rob resources to make cortisol at the expense of other hormones like the ones in charge of reproduction. This is why stressed-out people often have decreased libido.
Normally it takes your body several hours to clear out the effects of a single stressor. But when you are having multiple stressful events throughout the day, your cortisol levels are stuck on high and your body has to exist in a continuous stress response. This is not a healthy way to live!
Assess your stress
So what can you do about it? The first step is to identify how stress might be affecting you mentally and physically. Some symptoms are obvious but others are mysterious or vague. You probably would have a hard time connecting the dots between distress and salt cravings, for example.
Our quick stress assessment (available at the bottom of the article) is a simple tool you can use to measure your stress levels. The questionnaire has five sections of symptoms that you rate on a scale of frequency, from never to often. It also includes a health and lifestyle section which may help you link some habits or diet choices to your stress levels. The assessment comes with an interpretation key to calculate which type(s) of stress you may be experiencing. After you complete the assessment you can determine the type of stress response that is most prevalent for you.
The assessment distinguishes between several different stress types including eustress, adrenal, and prolonged. Eustress we’ve talked about, the positive or exciting stress. Adrenal stress manifests in physical or psychological changes that fluctuate with your cortisol levels. Symptoms commonly include physical pains, like muscle and joint tenderness, or sore spots on the body. You might also have cravings or dark circles under your eyes.
Prolonged stress occurs when your stress level doesn’t let up. It often affects your sleep quality and daily living routines. People with this kind of stress response usually feel wired, tired, or mentally drained. Prolonged stress can be broken down into two subgroups: overactive HPA or inadequate HPA responses.
HPA refers to the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis. It’s a super complex system of circular interactions between the hypothalamus in the brain and the pituitary and adrenal glands. The HPA axis regulates our chemical response to stressors through a delicate dance of hormone activation. But chronic, unrelenting stress can throw this system off balance. An overactive HPA response causes an abundance of stress hormones to circulate in the body. This can cause anxiety, worry, and sleep disturbances. An inadequate HPA response is an opposite problem of not producing enough stress hormones. You might have low energy, poor concentration, or sleep too much.
When you’ve identified the type of stress response you’re experiencing, the stress assessment score card contains suggestions for nutrition and herbal supplements to lessen the impact of stress, depending on which form of stress is affecting you the most. It’s important to use the correct approach by figuring out your stress response first; for example, using supplements that invigorate when you need calming would be counterproductive.
We encourage you to use our free stress assessment test to find out how your stress levels might be impacting your health and how you can support a healthy stress response through nutrition.
About the Author:Learn more about Dr. Ledoux.