Stress and Health – Part 2

Effects of stress on our bodies regarding the digestive, nervous, reproductive and respiratory systems.

As established in part one of this article, the effects of stress on our bodies is an important factor causing many health problems. In the short-term, its effects may not be as harmful, but in situations where stress is chronic and persistent, the body continuously releases stress hormones, which can cause irreversible harm to the body’s organs and major systems. Last time, we took a look at the effects of persistent stress on the cardiovascular, immune and musculoskeletal systems. In part two of this article, we’ll look at the digestive, nervous, reproductive and respiratory systems.

Digestive system: When the stress hormones get into the digestive tract they cause trouble. The problems can include dry mouth, indigestion, nausea and gas. Stress hormones can also increase or decrease stimulation of the muscles of the intestines which can lead to diarrhea, cramping or constipation. Ongoing issues such as this may increase one’s risk for irritable bowel syndrome, severe heartburn and ulcers.

Nervous system: When our bodies are having a “fight or flight” response to a real or perceived environmental threat (stressor), the brain’s sympathetic nerves signal the adrenal glands to release a variety of chemicals, including epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. High levels of these two chemicals over a long period of time may impair memory and learning functions and increase one’s odds of depression. Our bodies are also “revved up” under the influence of these stress hormones because they accelerate at the rate of which our hearts pump blood, this can lead to serious sleep disruption.

Reproductive system: Stress inhibits the reproductive systems of both men and women. Stress hormones curb the production of the male and female sex hormones; estrogen, testosterone and progesterone. It can lengthen or shorten a woman’s menstrual cycle. It can also stop it altogether causing fertility problems. For men, the disruption in hormone production can lead to erectile dysfunction. There are also pregnancy related risks from chronic stress which includes increased risk for miscarriage, an increase in a baby’s chance of developing asthma or allergies and an increased risk of having a low birth weight baby

Respiratory system: When we are stressed, our bodies need more oxygen. To meet this demand for more oxygen, the respiratory rate becomes heightened and this causes lack of breath and increases our heart rates. Stress at persistently high levels causes the human body to breathe faster, feel short of breath or hyperventilate. Over the long-term, this strain on the system can make one more susceptible to upper respiratory infections or panic attacks.

Stress in unavoidable, but it’s important to keep it under control for our overall health and wellbeing. Michigan State University Extension says that our bodies are capable of handling the effects of short-term stress, commonly referred to as acute stress and the impact it has on our body quite well. The “stress response” also known as “fight or flight” is activated by our bodies whenever we are faced with a real or perceived environmental stressor. This generalized physiological response to stress causes the release of several chemical hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. As outlined above, when these chemicals are present for a prolonged period of time, an individual may be putting himself at serious risk for a host of health problems like those described in this article, and many others not mentioned here.

For information on how to reduce the harmful effects of chronic stress or for other articles related to this subject, please visit www.msue.msu.edu.

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