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Glenn Ellis: A look at stress and your health

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Glenn Ellis

By Glenn Ellis

High blood pressure; acid reflux; diabetes; ulcers; arthritis; obesity; asthma.

It is a common belief that these are conditions expected at some point in life. However, on closer examination, it seems that there is a mysterious culprit that is a factor in all of these problems: STRESS.

Stress isn’t just a state of mind — it can affect your entire body. Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses.

Stress can trigger the body’s response to perceived threat or danger, the Fight-or-Flight response. During this reaction, certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength.

Originally named for its ability to enable us to physically fight or run away when faced with danger, it’s now activated in situations where neither response is appropriate, like in traffic or during a stressful day at work. When the perceived threat is gone, systems are designed to return to normal function via the relaxation response, but in our times of chronic stress, this often doesn’t happen enough, causing damage to the body.

Distress

Stress that continues without relief can lead to a condition called distress — a negative stress reaction. Distress can lead to physical symptoms including headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and problems sleeping. Research suggests that stress also can bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases.

To understand what stress does to us, imagine you lived tens of thousands of years ago, at a time when humans were threatened by hungry animals such as saber-toothed tigers and wolves. Our caveman ancestors had to be able to react instantly, either by fighting the beasts or running away.

So, humans evolved the ability to respond to a stressful situation instantly, by preparing the body for “fight or flight.” Under sudden stress, you will get a burst of exceptional strength and endurance, as your body pumps out stress hormones.

Sometimes we can still benefit from this “fight or flight” response – like the case of a mother whose child was pinned under a concrete slab during a tornado. Under stress, she found the strength to lift the huge slab with her bare hands, even though it later took three men to move it.

But much of the time in modern life, the “fight or flight” response won’t help. Yet those stress hormones still flood your system, preparing you for physical action. And if you are under stress frequently, it can harm your physical health.

‘The Stress Hormone’

Cortisol is an important hormone in the body, secreted by the adrenal glands. Normally, it’s present in the body at higher levels in the morning, and at its lowest at night. Although stress isn’t the only reason that cortisol is secreted into the bloodstream, it has been termed “the stress hormone” because it’s also secreted in higher levels during the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, and is responsible for several stress-related changes in the body.

While cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress, it’s important that the body’s relaxation response be activated so the body’s functions can return to normal. Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, the body’s stress response is activated so often that functioning often doesn’t have a chance to return to normal, producing chronic stress.

One side effect of increased cortisol in the body can be weight gain, especially in the abdominal area, which can bring more negative health consequences than fat stored in other areas of the body.

Excess cortisol can be stimulated by physical stress such as over-exercising, lack of sleep, dieting, and poor nutrition; mental stress such as a high stress work environment; and emotional stress such as a death of a family member or even just too many demands on your time.

Excess stress may give you a headache, a stomachache, or just a feeling of being “on edge.” But too much stress could also be doing a number on your mouth, teeth, gums, and overall health.

So how can you prevent these oral health problems?

Stress can lead to depression. And depressed patients, according to recent research, have twice the risk of an unfavorable outcome from gum disease treatment compared to those who aren’t depressed.

You can’t make depression or the stress disappear, of course. But experts say that learning healthy coping strategies can help reduce the risk of gum problems getting worse. Healthy coping is “problem-focused” with active and practical strategies to deal with the stress and depression, experts say.

Remember, eating a balanced diet, seeing your dentist regularly, and good oral hygiene help reduce your risks of periodontal disease. Make sure you brush twice a day and floss daily.

Stress is a natural part of life but its effects don’t have to be a natural part of your health.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.

Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com.