What Stress Does To You, By Dr. Vera Mbamalu

James is a 33-year-old office administrator who wakes at 4am each morning, swiftly gets off the bed whilst silently cursing his alarm for disrupting a rather fitful sleep. 

James rushes through the motions of his daily personal hygiene routine and heads out for the day, practically running to catch a bus to work without having breakfast. For the fear of Lagos traffic, he has to beat the traffic, if he is to make it in on time. Whilst in the bus, he is surrounded by crying babies with their mothers unsuccessfully trying to console them, loud and opinionated passengers, quarrelsome drivers and other road users honking their horns at every creature in sight. 

By the time James gets to work, he already feels drained even before the day begins. Settling on his seat, he opens his drawer and pops a pill to get the day started. All day, it is a struggle for concentration. Seven hours later, it’s close of business and James is on the move again, but he inadvertently gets caught in traffic. He finally gets home at 10 pm with an email to respond to and a few tasks to tick off for the day so that he can finally drift off to sleep at a little past midnight. This experience does not end; it’s a cycle and an experience lived every day…

Stress is medically defined as any intrinsic or extrinsic stimulus that evokes a biological response – the body’s natural physical and mental reaction to our experiences. The way our bodies try to compensate for these stresses is known as stress responses which are critical for survival because they enable us to respond to our day-to-day challenges while maintaining the normal physiological function of the body. 

Hence, stress is not always a negative thing, but prolonged and severe stress without effective coping mechanisms, can ultimately act as a trigger and perpetuating factor for many pathological disorders. The effects of stress on different body systems have been documented following various research findings.

 A few of such effects are discussed below:

Stress and Obesity
In periods of acute stress, mounting a stress response involves the mobilization of energy stores for immediate use. However, when this becomes prolonged, there is acquisition and/or redistribution of energy stores, leading to weight gain and increased visceral fat deposition. Stress can also affect the appetite and promote unhealthy dietary preferences. This with other associated responses can culminate in increased insulin resistance and predisposition to Type 2 Diabetes.

Stress and Cognition, Learning and Mood

Stress has many effects on ability to learn, make decisions, attention and judgement. These effects depend on the intensity, origin and magnitude of the stressors. Changes in the structure and function of certain parts of the brain which include the Hippocampus, Amygdala, Temporal lobe and neural circuits from elevated levels of stress hormones and other signaling molecules can adversely affect level of cognition and behaviour. These changes to brain physiology can manifest as irritability, anxiety, depression or insomnia.

Stress and your Memory

Chronic Stress could lead to changes in memory functions of the brain and its ability to convert short term to long term memory. This is due to the structural and functional changes in the Hippocampus, an area of the brain that has the highest density of glucocorticoid (stress hormones) receptors and also represents the highest level of response to stress.

Stress and your Cardiovascular System

The effects can be stimulatory or inhibitory, leading to changes in the heart rate, force of contraction of the heart and salt retention by the kidneys. These changes are mediated by the activation of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) responsible for regulating the cardiovascular system or other regulatory systems in the brain manifesting as increased risk of vascular diseases, hypertension or hypotension.

Stress and your Reproductive System

Stress boosts stress hormones (glucocorticoids) which subsequently affect the release of certain hormones, most notably Gonadotropin Releasing Hormone that regulates ovulation, sperm production and sexual activity. It may also suppress this hormone by enabling an increase in the inhibitor of this hormone. 

Stress and your Digestive System

Stress affects the normal functioning of the gastrointestinal (GI) system, in areas such as absorption, mucus and stomach acid secretion, intestinal motility and permeability, functions of important transport channels. These predispose to the appearance of GI inflammatory conditions and reactivation of existing conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (1BS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (eg. Crohn’s Disease) and Peptic Ulcer Disease.

In conclusion, although stress can be beneficial, prolonged stress can ultimately lead to many disorders, some of which are outlined above. It is important to seek care in order to deal with these situations and prevent the occurrence or aggravation of these disorders. Care can be pharmacological (use of drugs) and non-pharmacological which includes lifestyle modifications, regular exercise, improved adequacy of diet and other programs aimed at reducing stress levels.

Have you considered talking to a doctor regarding your health challenges and increasing stress levels? A doctor may just be a click away.

Dr. Vera Mbamalu is a Primary Care Physician at pneuma.care, a free telemedicine and on-demand house calls healthcare institution. She can be reached via [email protected]

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