Stress’s Toll on Your Body

Dr. Samantha Morel March 25th, 2024

In my journey through life’s ups and downs, I’ve come to understand stress not just as a psychological concept, but as a physical reality that manifests in various ways across the body. This personal exploration into how stress and cortisol levels affect our well-being is not just scientific inquiry; it’s a story shared by many, including myself. As we delve into the body’s response to stress, we uncover not only the mechanisms at play but also the importance of nurturing our health in the face of life’s inevitable pressures.

What is Cortisol? 

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that plays a crucial role in various bodily functions. It’s often referred to as the “stress hormone” because it’s released in higher quantities during the body’s ‘fight or flight‘ response to stress, although its influence extends far beyond managing stress and anxiety.

Production and Regulation

Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands, which are located on top of each kidney. Its release is controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a complex set of direct influences and feedback interactions among the hypothalamus (a region of the brain), the pituitary gland (located at the base of the brain), and the adrenal glands. The hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which prompts the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH, in turn, stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.

Functions of Cortisol

Cortisol has many vital functions within the body, including:

Regulation of Metabolism: It helps control the body’s use of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, thereby regulating energy production.

Anti-inflammatory Effects: Cortisol can reduce inflammation and is often used in treating conditions where inflammation plays a key role.

Blood Pressure Regulation: It supports maintaining blood pressure levels and helps ensure the heart and blood vessels function effectively.

Blood Glucose Regulation: Cortisol increases blood glucose levels by stimulating glucose production in the liver and inhibiting insulin’s effects, helping to provide an energy boost in response to stress.

Immune System Modulation: It suppresses the immune system’s response, which can be beneficial in preventing an overreaction but may also lower immune defenses if cortisol levels are chronically high.

Psychological Well-being: While elevated cortisol levels over prolonged periods can be harmful, cortisol is also crucial for mood regulation and coping with stress.

Cortisol Imbalances

Both excess and deficiency of cortisol can lead to health problems. High cortisol levels over prolonged periods can contribute to weight gain (especially around the abdomen), high blood pressure, osteoporosis, muscle weakness, mood swings, and cognitive difficulties, among other issues. This condition is often associated with chronic stress. 

On the other hand, inadequately low levels of cortisol can lead to weight loss, muscle weakness, fatigue, low blood pressure, and sometimes darkening of the skin. This condition arises when the adrenal glands do not produce enough cortisol, which can be due to autoimmune diseases, infections, or damage to the adrenal or pituitary gland.

Central Nervous System (CNS)

My first realization of stress’s impact was on my mind. During periods of high stress, my memory seemed foggy, and concentrating on tasks became increasingly difficult. This is because the CNS directly orchestrates the body’s response to stress, with cortisol playing a leading role. Prolonged exposure to cortisol can impair cognitive functions and even affect mood. Personal experiences of anxiety and the struggle to maintain focus during stressful times echo the scientific findings on cortisol’s effects on the brain, making the pursuit of balance and mindfulness not just beneficial but necessary.

Imagine standing at the precipice of a moment you’ve meticulously prepared for, perhaps it’s that pivotal presentation you’ve been polishing for weeks, aiming to leave your audience in awe. The spotlight is on you, the slides are queued up, and then, in an almost cruel twist of fate, your mind goes blank. That rush of panic isn’t just about forgetting words; it’s the palpable fear of letting yourself or others down, the dread of not living up to the high standards you’ve set. This is the essence of performance anxiety—a tempest of worry and self-doubt that can wash away your preparation and leave you grappling for focus.

This overwhelming sensation isn’t confined to the realm of public speaking. Consider the moments leading up to a critical exam, where your future seems to hinge on the outcome. You’ve spent countless nights hitting the books, only to find that, under the harsh glare of the examination room, those meticulously learned facts and figures evaporate, leaving behind a void filled with stress and frustration. It’s as if your brain, in a misguided attempt to protect you, flips a switch, initiating a fight-or-flight response that seems utterly out of place in a classroom or conference room setting.

Peripheral Nervous System (PNS)

During a particularly stressful time, I vividly experienced how chronic stress could affect my PNS, the vital network that relays signals between our brain, spinal cord, and the rest of our bodies. It encompasses all the nerves outside our central nervous system. The PNS plays a pivotal role in transmitting signals between the central nervous system and the rest of the body, thereby influencing a wide range of bodily functions. Stress, particularly when chronic, can have significant effects on the PNS, manifesting through various physiological and psychological symptoms.

Effects of Stress on the Peripheral Nervous System

Autonomic Nervous System Dysregulation: The PNS includes the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls involuntary bodily functions, such as heart rate, digestion, and respiration. The ANS is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which mobilizes the body’s stress response, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which promotes relaxation and recovery. Chronic stress can lead to an imbalance between the SNS and PNS, often resulting in a prolonged “fight or flight” response. This dysregulation can contribute to cardiovascular issues, digestive problems, and impaired immune function.

Increased Pain Sensitivity: Chronic stress can heighten sensitivity to pain by affecting the nerves responsible for pain transmission. This increased sensitivity is partly due to the stress-induced release of certain neurotransmitters and hormones, which can alter the way pain signals are processed by the nervous system.

Neuropathy: Prolonged exposure to elevated stress levels can lead to nerve damage or neuropathy, particularly in individuals with pre-existing conditions like diabetes. Stress can exacerbate these conditions, further impairing nerve function and leading to symptoms such as numbness, tingling, and weakness, primarily in the hands and feet.

Muscle Tension and Fatigue: The PNS plays a role in muscle activation and relaxation. Under stress, the body tends to tense up as part of the defensive response, leading to chronic muscle tension. This persistent tension can cause muscle fatigue, discomfort, and pain, impacting physical mobility and comfort.

Vagus Nerve 

The vagus nerve runs like a serene river through our body, touching the heart, lungs, and digestive system, whispering messages of peace and balance. Learning about its ability to essentially ‘switch off‘ the stress response and bring about a state of calm was a revelation. It highlighted a direct route to soothing the storm within—a route that ran directly through the vagus nerve.

Embracing practices that engage and stimulate this powerful nerve—deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, and yoga—transformed my approach to stress. Each deep breath became a gentle nudge to my vagus nerve, a signal to lower my heart rate, to ease the tension in my muscles, to quiet the flood of stress hormones. It was as if I had uncovered a secret weapon against the onslaught of daily pressures, a tool that lay within me all along.

This personal journey into the heart of my nervous system reshaped my relationship with my body and stress. I began to see stress not as an invincible foe but as a manageable aspect of life, one that I could navigate with grace through the activation of my vagus nerve. The knowledge that I possessed an innate capacity to counteract the effects of stress with something as simple as regulated breathing was empowering.

Moreover, my exploration into the vagus nerve and its impact on stress resilience illuminated the profound interconnectedness of mind and body. It underscored the importance of nurturing both, recognizing that our mental and emotional well-being is inextricably linked to our physical health.

Musculoskeletal System

During periods of stress, I often find the tension manifesting physically in my shoulders and back, serving as a tangible sign of the stress’s impact on my musculoskeletal system. This personal experience is a direct reflection of what science tells us about stress and cortisol’s role in contributing to muscle tension and pain. It’s fascinating, yet sobering, to feel such a clear illustration of the theoretical knowledge in my own body.

This realization served as a powerful reminder of the deep connection between the mind and body, underscoring the critical importance of integrating physical activity, relaxation techniques, and posture awareness into our stress management practices. By paying attention to and addressing these physical symptoms, we not only alleviate discomfort but also take significant steps toward mitigating the broader effects of stress on our well-being.

Cardiovascular System

The physical sensations of a racing heart and heightened blood pressure during stressful moments are more than just uncomfortable experiences; they serve as clear indicators of the significant strain being placed on the cardiovascular system. These symptoms are the body’s immediate response to stress, signaling that something is not right within.

For me, understanding the intricate connection between chronic stress, elevated cortisol levels, and heart health served as a profound wake-up call. It highlighted the necessity of prioritizing stress management techniques, not solely for the sake of mental well-being but also as a critical measure to protect my heart against the detrimental effects of prolonged stress. This realization pushed me to adopt healthier lifestyle choices and stress-reduction strategies to safeguard my heart’s health in the long run.

Gastrointestinal System

The impact of stress on the gastrointestinal system is a deeply personal issue for many, myself included. Experiencing symptoms such as stomach upset and changes in appetite during periods of stress is not uncommon. These manifestations serve as a testament to the complex relationship between stress, cortisol, and the health of our gut.

This understanding of the gut as a “second brain” (aka the enteric nervous system) has been pivotal in highlighting the necessity of a holistic approach to managing stress. In fact, it is part of the peripheral nervous system and governs the function of the gastrointestinal tract. Stress can significantly impact this system, leading to symptoms such as nausea, stomach pain, bloating, and changes in bowel habits. It’s not just about tackling the mental and emotional aspects; it also involves nurturing our digestive health. Ensuring our gut health is part of our overall well-being strategy is crucial for maintaining balance and resilience in the face of life’s stressors.

Immune System

During periods of stress, I’ve observed a noticeable uptick in how often I catch colds and generally feel run-down. This isn’t just bad luck; it’s a direct result of cortisol suppressing my immune system. My personal experiences align with scientific research, highlighting how our bodies react under stress.

Interestingly, while acute stress can temporarily enhance the immune response, giving us a quick boost to fend off pathogens, chronic stress has the opposite effect. Over time, it wears down our immune defenses, leaving us more vulnerable to infections. This dichotomy serves as a potent reminder of stress’s invisible costs and underscores the critical importance of developing strategies to bolster our resilience against the ongoing challenges life throws our way.

Endocrine System

The revelation of stress’s capacity to disrupt the body’s hormonal equilibrium struck me as both intriguing and disconcerting. The endocrine system operates on a fine balance, a balance that chronic stress can easily disturb. This disruption can lead to a variety of conditions that impact metabolism, energy levels, and overall health, demonstrating how pervasive the effects of stress can be.

My own path to grappling with stress has been a journey of heightened self-awareness, learning to tune into my body’s signals with a keen ear. Recognizing the moments when cortisol levels might be adversely affecting my health has been crucial. Armed with this awareness, I’ve taken deliberate steps to restore balance, prioritizing my well-being amidst the challenges posed by stress.

What Should I Do To Manage My Stress?

Managing cortisol levels involves adopting a holistic approach that encompasses lifestyle changes, stress management techniques, and dietary adjustments. Here are some effective strategies:

Lifestyle Changes and Stress Management

Regular Exercise: Engaging in regular physical activity, such as brisk walking, cycling, yoga, or swimming, can help reduce stress and, consequently, cortisol levels. Exercise promotes the release of endorphins, the body’s natural mood elevators.

Adequate Sleep: Ensuring you get enough quality sleep is crucial for managing cortisol levels. Establish a regular sleep schedule, create a relaxing bedtime routine, and make your sleeping environment comfortable and free from distractions.

Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Practices such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation can significantly lower stress levels and help regulate cortisol production.

Time Management: Organizing your schedule, setting realistic goals, and taking regular breaks can reduce stress by preventing feelings of being overwhelmed.

Social Support: Maintaining close relationships and seeking support from friends, family, or support groups can provide emotional relief and reduce stress.

Dietary Adjustments

Balanced Diet: Consuming a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can support overall health and help maintain normal cortisol levels. Avoiding high sugar and high-fat foods is also advisable, as they can elevate cortisol.

Limit Caffeine and Alcohol: Excessive consumption of caffeine and alcohol can increase cortisol levels. Moderating intake can help keep cortisol in check.

Stay Hydrated: Dehydration can lead to an increase in cortisol levels. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day can help manage stress and cortisol.

Consider Supplements: Certain supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids, ashwagandha, and phosphatidylserine, have been shown to help reduce cortisol levels. However, it’s important to consult with a healthcare provider before starting any supplements.

Professional Guidance

If stress and cortisol levels are significantly impacting your health, seeking professional help from a healthcare provider or a mental health specialist is essential. They can offer personalized advice and treatment options, including therapy or medication if necessary. You can always feel free to contact me via the methods listed below: 

  1. Filling out the contact form at the bottom of this website
  2. Emailing:
  3. Calling/Texting: (832)304-8894

Adopting a comprehensive approach that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of stress management can effectively help in regulating cortisol levels, promoting a healthier and more balanced lifestyle.

Putting It All Together

Through a personal lens, the journey to understand the effects of stress and cortisol on the body becomes not just an academic exercise but a shared human experience. My own reflections on dealing with stress underscore the universal challenge it poses and the critical need for proactive management. Whether through mindfulness, exercise, or seeking support, finding our path to stress resilience is essential for our physical and mental health. In sharing this journey, we not only gain insights into the science of stress but also foster a sense of community and shared understanding in navigating life’s challenges.

Stay well, 

-Dr. M

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Samantha Morel, Ph.D.

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