Stress is a Killer... But Why?

Updated: Jun 17


Author: Ngametua Varu

Date: 6/16/22


In the massage therapy field, we are in the business of stress reduction, leading to happier and healthier lives. Long-term stress can have devastating effects on many important bodily functions.


What exactly is "stress"

Stress is defined as any intrinsic or extrinsic stimulus that evokes a biological response.

This biological response can present in many ways such as anxiety, fear, or anger.


Your central nervous system (CNS) is in charge of this stress response, secreting hormones that stop any processes not vital to survival and increase the function of those that are, like increasing your heart rate to make more oxygen available for a potential fight or flight. Hormones are your body's internal messengers, telling organs when to start or stop doing something based on what stimulus the CNS receives.


In the short term, this is critical to survival, but severe or chronic stress can keep us in this heightened state for too long. An imbalance of these hormones can cause major problems for health and wellbeing.


The Bodyguard is On Break

The immune system is heavily regulated by hormones responding to stimuli within the body and is the system that fights off illnesses. There have been several studies discussing the relationship between stress and the immune system and findings have shown that severe or chronic stress suppresses the immune system increasing the probability of diseases like cancer.


Stress mediating hormones can be produced not just in the brain but also within the lymphatic system like in the thymus, or ovaries. This overproduction of stress hormones can negatively affect the body's receptors, and change the function of the immune system, decreasing the effectiveness of necessary immune hormones. In times of severe stress, growth hormone production is also halted, affecting cell reproduction and regeneration.


Natural Killer Cells are our body's cancer-killing cells, and T lymphocytes or "T cells" are what help us fight off things like the flu. During severe stress, the actual number of these cells decreases, leaving you more susceptible to the growth of malignant cells, genetic instability, and tumor expansion.


Where Is My Mind?

One of the main hormones released during a stress response is cortisol. A high level of cortisol in the brain long-term has been found to have an adverse effect on the hippocampus, a key player in converting short-term memory to long-term and the brain part with the highest level of response to stress.


Being constantly stimulated by these stress hormones, the hippocampus begins to atrophy or decrease in size. There has also been noted a decrease in neurogenesis (growth and development of nervous system tissue), and a decrease in the number of neurons and dendritic branches. A dendrite is a part of a nervous tissue cell (neuron) that receives data from another neuron. Fewer neurons equal less brain function.


Chronic stress can lead to spacial memory issues, long-term memory issues, or short-term memory issues as well as an altering or hindering of neurochemical responses. High cortisol levels also increase inflammation in the body and increase weight retention.


Don't Go Breaking My Heart

It's fairly known that stress is one of the leading risk factors for heart disease. It's also noted that severe stress leads to increased blood pressure, increased blood lipids (cholesterol), blood clotting disorders, and vascular changes. All of these factors can cause cardiac arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeat) and a subsequent myocardial infarction (heart attack!)


The cardiovascular system can respond to "stress" in 3 ways: stimulating the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), or modulating the endothelial cell function (changing the cells in the internal lining of the heart). The change in endothelial cell function increases the risk of thrombosis (blood clots) and ischemia (decreased blood supply).


Stress Poops...

Stress has several different effects on the movement of the GI system (gastrointestinal) which can be classified into six different actions:

  • GI tract movement disorders

  • Increased visceral (organ) irritability

  • Altered rate and extent of various GI secretions

  • Modified permeability of the intestinal barrier

  • Negative effects on blood flow to the GI tract

  • Increased intestinal bacteria counts

During stress, the body prevents the stomach from emptying and accelerates colonic motility (movement). For our friends with IBS, irritable bowel syndrome, stress increases the movement of the large intestine which is why they get...stress poops.


Even if you are ingesting a diet of all healthy foods, if your body is responding to stress the nutrients from that healthy food do not get absorbed, it all just passes through the system.


Take a Chill Pill

A little bit of stress is normal, but severe and chronic stress is keeping your body's natural systems suppressed and leaving you open to illness and disease. Your cells have the power to regulate and reproduce but when the cells are bombarded with stress hormones, they change or lose their function.


Massage therapy is the solution for many and the number of people seeking massage and bodywork services continues to increase. If you are interested in joining the field of healing bodywork, take a look at our program brochure and call us to schedule a tour.