How does stress affect your body?
Have you ever felt stomachache or tummy pain before an interview? Do you have bowel urgency before an examination? Do you have a faster heartbeat when you are presenting or giving a speech? Why do we react like so?
To know the reasons, we have to understand the concept of homeostasis.
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Homeostasis is a term that was first coined by physiologist Walter Cannon in 1926. Homeostasis is the tendency to resist change to maintain a stable, relatively constant internal (body) environment. Our bodies are constantly being pushed away from the balance points. For instance, when we exercise, our muscles increase heat production causing our body temperature upward. Similarly, when we drink a glass of fruit juice, our blood glucose goes up. Homeostasis depends on the ability of our bodies to detect and oppose these changes so that our bodies can maintain a stable and relatively constant environment.
Prolonged stress will disrupt homeostasis
Physical or psychological stress may negatively impact our health. There is evidence that stress can directly affect our bodies through the production of stress hormones, such as catecholamines and glucocorticoids like cortisol. When our bodies are faced with a stressor, our bodies react in a primitive sense termed the fight-or-flight response. Blood from our skin, organs, and extremities is directed to the brain and larger muscles in preparation to fight the impending danger or flee from it. In addition, our senses (especially vision and hearing) are heightened, glucose and fatty acids are released into the bloodstream for energy, and our immune and digestive systems are shut down to provide us with the necessary energy to fight the stressor. However, if we are under prolonged stress, our bodies internal environment is destabilized and therefore homeostasis is disrupted.
When we are under stress, the homeostasis of our stomachs is disrupted. There is more stomach acid secretion, less blood flow to the stomach and more reflux of upper intestinal contents into the stomach. Less blood supply to the stomach leads to an imbalance between oxygen supply and demand that may induce mucosal damage. As a result of insufficient blood supply to the stomach, there is also a reduced ability to neutralize hydrogen ions, which can contribute to cell death and ulceration. Protective processes such as mucous production may also be impaired, further promoting stomach ulcers and therefore stomach distress.
Common gastrointestinal symptoms due to stress
Stress (both physical and mental) have been associated with the onset of symptom exacerbation in some of the most common chronic disorders of the digestive system, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastro-oesophagalreflux disease (GERD), and peptic ulcer disease (PUD) and so on. Common stressrelated gastrointestinal symptoms includes stomach cramps, bowel colic, constipation, diarrhoea, increased hunger, indigestion, loss of appetite and nausea.
Some people can handle upsets without concern, while others become distressed even by a slight deviation from their expectations. It is important to know that small stress could be a good thing. It can give you the push you need, motivating you to do your best and to stay focused and alert. Problems accumulate when stress is prolonged, or the stress level is too high.
Tips on dealing with stress:
- To deal with stress, making lifestyle changes such as pre-planning some events might be worthwhile to reduce your overall stress level, help you better cope with stress, and recover from stressful events more quickly.
- Stress can cause shallow breathing, which means that our body cannot get enough oxygen to fully relax. Try to breathe more slowly and deeply from your abdomen. This can help alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Overgeneralization has been associated with anxiety disorders. For example, you make a low score on one science test and conclude that you are hopeless at science in general. You have a negative experience in one relationship and develop a belief that you just are not good at relationships at all. Monitor your negative thoughts to see how often you fret about things such as losing your job or making mistakes. If you find yourself obsessing, try to substitute a negative thought with a positive, but a realistic one. For example, instead of thinking, “I know something will go wrong during my work”, tell yourself, “No matter what happens, I can make it.”
- Get more physical activities. Studies found that exercise not only improved digestive related symptoms in patients with irritable bowel syndrome, but it also improved their overall quality of life. Physical activity appears to be an effective way to reduce symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and fatigue in those with irritable bowel syndrome.
- Time management is a way to find the time for all the things you want and need to do. It helps you decide which things are urgent and which can wait. Learning how to manage your time, activities, and commitments can be hard. But doing so can make your life easier, less stressful, and more meaningful.
Take time to do things that help you live well and improve both your physical health and mental health. Even small acts of self-care in your daily life can have a big impact. For example：
- get regular 30 minutes daily walking exercise,
- eat healthy with regular meals and stay hydrated,
- stick to a regular sleep schedule,
- try a regular schedule for meditation, muscle relaxation, breathing exercises or healthy activities you enjoy such as journaling,
- practice gratitude by reminding yourself daily of things you are grateful for,
- focus on positivity,
- stay connected with friends or family members who can provide emotional support.
See your doctor if you have a persistent change in bowel habits or other symptoms. They may indicate a more serious condition, such as colon cancer. More-serious symptoms include weight loss, diarrhea at night, rectal bleeding, unexplained vomiting, difficulty swallowing, persistent pain that is not relieved by passing gas or a bowel movement.