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Stress is defined as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. Stress is also a biological term, which refers to the consequences of the failure of a human body to respond appropriately to emotional or physical threats to that individual, whether actual or imagined.

Photo credit: Vanessa Lewis Photography

Picture yourself standing in line at a supermarket checkout till and the person in front of you is fumbling with the bags and then drops his wallet. He then needs to find his spectacles to locate the correct money only to realize that he does not have sufficient funds at hand. You, the next in line, are in an incredible rush. You only have half an hour for lunch and you would like to eat your carefully selected food before you are needed back at your desk to continue your day, seated and very stationary until your next coffee break. As the person continues to complete his transaction at the speed of a resting sloth, you feel your blood pumping in your ears. You clench your teeth and you muster every thread of self-control not to punch something, or heaven forbid, someone. Your clearly find yourself in a state of stress.

What are the common symptoms of stress?
• Irritability
• Muscular tension
• Inability to concentrate
• Headaches
• Accelerated heart rate
• Unexplained weight fluctuations
• Disrupted sleep

What are the underlying causes of stress?
• unrealistic expectations
• social pressures
• academic achievement
• dissatisfaction with your current situation or status
• change in sleeping habits
• new responsibilities
• change in eating habits
• stress prone diet
• change to new environment
• money concerns

How does stress physiology work?
Virtually any stressful event triggers an array of neural and biochemical reactions that prepare your body to cope with the consequences of that event. The immediate reaction to a stressful situation is the release of adrenalin and nor-adrenaline from the adrenal medulla (the inner part of the adrenal glands which are situated on top of the kidneys). These two hormones start a cascade of events, including an increased heart rate to circulate blood throughout the body, specifically reaching the arms and legs to allow you to either fight or flee. Digestive function grinds to a halt as one does not have much reason to enjoy a meal when you are either fighting or fleeing your opponent. Now the brain (the think tank of the body) enters play and the hypothalamus sends out messengers to further accommodate all the changes that are needed in this battle that has been set in motion.

Which organs are involved in the stress response?
Messages from the anterior pituitary gland in the brain reach the outer layer of the adrenal glands (adrenal cortex), which result in the retention of water because the body now holds onto sodium. The common stress hormone, cortisol, is additionally released by the adrenal glands and this hormone is responsible for the release of glucose into the bloodstream, the breakdown of protein and reduction in inflammation (pain, redness, swelling and raised temperature due to injury). The biggest detoxification organ of the human body, the liver, plays a role in the breakdown of fats to convert to glucose, the usable energy product in the body. Another part of the body, the thyroid gland, also contributes to the supply of energy by way of using glucose to produce ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate), the energy molecules. The result of stress is an increased supply of energy, which is intended to fuel impending physical activity.

What is the cost of stress?
At first glance it seems that the secretion of cortisol is beneficial as it releases glucose, which translates into fuel for the body. However your body only has a limited supply of stored energy and if cortisol releases stored energy then you can expect to run out at some point. Remember that digestive function is halted during the stress response so you cannot rely on replacing fuel by consuming more by way of eating another meal or snack. Moreover, if you activate the stress response and you do not use the released energy by being active, the consequence is that it will be stored in the adipose tissue, or fat cells. Even though the short-term benefit of stress is the activation of the immune system, with prolonged stress immune function is reduced. This results in the inability of the immune system to successfully defend the individual against possible pathogens such as bacteria. Bacteria can enter the body via the skin, the respiratory system or orally via contaminated food or fluid. Prolonged stress is also detrimental to the cardiovascular system as it results in considerable wear and tear of the blood vessels when the heart rate is increased and more blood is circulated to the different muscles and organs during the fight-or-flight response.

How to reduce stress.
Stress is not necessarily a negative response. We need to be able to fight or flee in certain situations otherwise we run the risk of having our lives cut prematurely short. Just imagine wandering onto a road in the path of an oncoming bus. If your physiology does not instinctively react by pumping blood to your arms and legs you won’t be able to duck, dive or run out of harms way. If you do not become stressed because of your impending exams, you may not have the energy to study through the night to achieve your desired marks. However, if you find yourself behind the person at the checkout you may benefit from relaxation techniques such as deep breathing. The best antidote for stress is exercise, which can include a gasp for air sprint or a brisk walk back to the office before you eat your lunch in the time left to do so. Considering that the stress response results in an increase in energy in the form of glucose, choosing a well-balanced meal, which includes protein such as a chicken or hummus, and avoiding sugary options such as biscuits and chocolates, is worth considering to minimize the storage of unused, excess energy. The ill-effects of excess weight and obesity are well documented and the benefits of regular exercise irrefutable.

Next time your find yourself in a stressful situation remember how the body reacts and take the relevant steps to compensate appropriately.

This article was published in issue 197 of Positive Health On-Line Magazine in August 2012

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