Stress and Your Body: The Root Cause for Health Issues

According to the Center of Disease Control, Stress will be the second most debilitating disease, second to heart disease, by 2020. The medical community is taking a serious look at and consideration of how stress directly impacts our immune system and spawns health problems. In turn, more and more practitioners are recommending ways to de-stress, such as meditation, float therapy, and other calming therapies as vital components to our well-being, recovery and longevity.

Ever noticed that you catch a cold or illness when stressed? That is no coincidence. But just how much does stress affect the way our body functions? As it turns out, it just may be the root cause of many health issues.

CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM

Some studies have shown that stress has many effects on the human nervous system and can cause structural changes in different parts of the brain; further, chronic stress can lead to atrophy of brain mass and can even decrease its weight. These changes directly affect our response to stress, cognition and memory, creating long-term effects on the nervous system. When the body is stressed, the Sympathetic Nervous System contributes to what is known as the "fight or flight" response. The body shifts its energy resources toward fighting off a life threat, or fleeing from an enemy. The SNS signals the adrenal glands to release hormones called adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.”

MEMORY

MRI images taken from the brains of people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have demonstrated a reduction in the volume of the hippocampus along with neurophysiologic effects such as a weak verbal memory. It appears that being exposed to stress can cause pathophysiologic changes in the brain, and these changes can be manifested as behavioral, cognitive, and mood disorders.

In one large study, 2,231 men and women (average age, 48.5 years old) who were free of dementia were observed. Their blood cortisol levels were measured, and then cognitive functions were evaluated, including memory, abstract reasoning, visual perception, attention, and executive function. Brain MRI imaging was also carried out in most of the participants (2,018 people) and total brain volume, brain volumes of different brain regions, and structural changes in the brain were assessed. The study showed that people with high blood cortisol levels had smaller total cerebral brain volume compared to people who had average levels. Furthermore, compared to people with average cortisol levels, those with high cortisol levels had worse visual perception, memory, and global cognitive function.

Clearly, high cortisol levels dramatically affect nervous and cognitive functions, as well as have the potential to actually alter the size and mass of the brain. The good news is that floating has scientifically been proven to reduce cortisol levels, which in addition to the calming benefits of magnesium, allows the body to recover from times of stress.

IMMUNE SYSTEM

The prevailing attitude between the association of stress and immune system response has been that people under stress are more likely to have an impaired immune system and, as a result, suffer from more frequent illness.

Over the past several decades, many studies have shown that stress mediators can pass through the blood-brain barrier and exert their effects on the immune system. In addition to adrenal steroids, other hormones are affected during stress. For example, the secretion of growth hormone will be halted during severe stress. 

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A good way to look at the adrenal gland’s function in relation to stress is to think of them as our body’s break pads; they release chemicals that allows our body to process and manage stress. However, in times of chronic stress, the “brake pads” can wear thin, and as anyone who drives a car knows, if thinning break pads reach their limit, the results are devastating for the car and its driver. Similarly, when our adrenal glands are overtasked, our entire body and immune system begins to feel the weight of compromise.

CARDIOVASCULAR SYSTEM

Stress causes autonomic nervous system activation and indirectly affects the function of the cardiovascular system, mainly with an increase in heart rate, strength of contraction, vasodilation in the arteries of skeletal muscles, a narrowing of the veins, contraction of the arteries in the spleen and kidneys, and decreased sodium excretion by the kidneys. The initial effect of stress on heart function is usually on the heart rate; depending upon the direction of the shift in the sympatho-vagal response, the heart beat will either increase or decrease. Stress can also significantly affect blood pressure by stimulating the autonomic sympathetic nervous system to increase vasoconstriction, which can mediate an increase in blood pressure, an increase in blood lipids, disorders in blood clotting, vascular changes, atherogenesis; all, of which, can cause cardiac arrhythmias and subsequent myocardial infarction.

The heart and blood vessels comprise the two elements of the cardiovascular system that work together in providing nourishment and oxygen to the organs of the body. The activity of these two elements is also coordinated in the body's response to stress. Chronic stress can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. This long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.

Repeated acute stress and persistent chronic stress may also contribute to inflammation in the circulatory system, particularly in the coronary arteries, and this is one pathway that is thought to tie stress to heart attack. It also appears that how a person responds to stress can affect cholesterol levels.

GASTROINTESTINAL SYSTEM

The gut has hundreds of millions of neurons which can function fairly independently and are in constant communication with the brain, which explains the ability to feel “butterflies” in the stomach. Stress can affect this brain-gut communication, and may trigger pain, bloating and other gut discomfort to be felt more easily. The gut is also inhabited by millions of bacteria which can influence its health and the brain’s health which can impact the ability to think and affect emotions. Stress is associated with changes in gut bacteria which in turn can influence mood. Thus, the gut’s nerves and bacteria strongly influence the brain and vice versa.

Stress can adversely affect appetite and the normal function of GI tract. Studies have shown that stress affects the absorption process, intestinal permeability, mucus and stomach acid secretion, function of ion channels, and GI inflammation. Stress can also alter the functional physiology of the intestine. Many inflammatory diseases, such as Crohn's disease and other ulcerative-based diseases of the GI tract, are associated with stress, and it has even been suggested that even childhood stress can lead to these diseases in adulthood. Stress also affects movement of the GI tract by preventing the stomach from emptying and accelerating colonic motility.

ENDOCRINE SYSTEM

There is a close relationship between stress and the endocrine system. Stress can either activate, or change the activity of, many endocrine processes associated with the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands, the adrenergic system, gonads, thyroid, and the pancreas. In fact, it has been suggested that it is impossible to separate the response to stress from the functions of the endocrine system.

During stressful conditions. T3 and T4 levels decrease with stress, which inhibits the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) secretion through the action of glucocorticoids on the central nervous system. In females, stress can lead to menstrual irregularities, and in males, it can lead to decreased sperm count and motility, ejaculatory disorders, and impotence.

These hormonal changes can greatly affect weight and obesity; mental stress leads to chronic activation of the neuroendocrine systems, namely cortisol (once again). Cortisol favors central fat deposition and increases appetite and food intake.

HOW INFRARED SAUNA AND FLOAT THERAPY CAN HELP

While many of our clients seek our full-spectrum infrared sauna therapy for its abundant health benefits, they equally appreciate the respite the solo sauna experience provides. Our Cabins feature many customizable qualities that can facilitate de-stressing, such as chromotherapy, tranquil music and the Calm app. Clients will also use their sauna time for stretching, breath work, yoga poses and meditation. The release of toxins and alleviation of pain during the infrared sauna session also aid in calming the nervous system, and it is quite common for us to hear how the Studio is someone’s “happy place.”

Float therapy has been scientifically proven to lower anxiety, blood pressure and cortisol levels, which directly combat the effects of stress on the body’s systems. In a society filled with non-stop stimuli and messaging, floating offers a chance to unplug and experience a complete mind and body reset. For many who have trouble meditating at home, Floating offers an easier and supportive path to meditation; it’s also a nurturing environment for prayer, breath work, visualization and positive affirmations; and just like any practice, the benefits of floating grow with continued use.

We offer various float customizations for clients to create their own tranquil experience, including ambient lighting, guided meditations, and zen music; and there is nothing more immersive than going what we call “baby in the womb” - with the lid closed, lights and music off - as you float in total stimuli-free serenity. For those experiencing chronic stress, we recommend integrating float therapy as a regular practice in your wellness routine.

Additional Resources:

CBS Early Show: How Sensory Deprivation and Floating Impact the Mind : Watch Here

Mind Body Green podcast, “How To Heal Yourself” Listen Here