The Stress Response and What Foods Lower It
How we react to the stress response is important. We all deal with stress differently. Some people can get over it quickly, while others take their time. But why is that? Is there a way to help reduce anxiety? Does food play a role in this? Find out more by reading about it in our post.
What is Stress
Stress is your mental and physical reaction to pressure from a certain situation. But remember not all of the stress response is bad, certain stress helps you and gives you the strength to do more. Negative or harmful stress is referred to as distress and on the flip side, positive or good stress is referred to as eustress.
The Stress Response
The stress response begins in the brain starting with the cerebral cortex, amygdala, and hypothalamus. When someone comes into contact with a stressful situation the cerebral cortex identifies it and sends the information to the amygdala. The amygdala interprets the senses and if it perceives it as dangerous it sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.
When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy for fight or flight.
The hypothalamus controls such involuntary body functions as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of blood vessels and bronchioles in the lungs. The autonomic nervous system has two components;
- Sympathetic nervous system: functions like a gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers.
- Parasympathetic nervous system: acts like a brake. It promotes the “rest and digest” response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.
After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands.
These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine into the bloodstream. As epinephrine circulates through the body, it brings on a number of physiological changes.
- The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs.
- Pulse rate and blood pressure go up.
- The person starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness.
- Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper.
- Triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.
The Body’s Stress Response Process
All of these changes happen so quickly that you won’t be aware of them right away. The body’s wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain’s visual centers even have a chance to fully process what is happening. That’s why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing.
As the first surge of epinephrine subsides, the hypothalamus activates the second component of the stress response system, the HPA axis. This process consists of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. The HPA axis relies on a series of hormonal signals to keep the sympathetic nervous system going .
If the brain continues to perceive something as dangerous, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which travels to the pituitary gland, triggering the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).
This hormone travels to the adrenal glands, prompting them to release cortisol. The body thus stays revved up and on high alert. When the threat passes, cortisol levels fall. The parasympathetic nervous system, the brake, then dampens the stress response.
Cortisol is also responsible for:
- Increased urea production, appetite suppression, suppression of immune system, exacerbation of gastric irritation, an associated feeling of depression, and loss of control.
In addition to the HPA axis, some other hormones such as Growth Hormone (GH) and thyroid hormones also play a significant role in stress.
- Growth hormone is a peptide hormone, released from the anterior pituitary gland. GH raises the concentration of glucose and free fatty acids.
- Thyroid hormones, the Thyroid releases thyroxin and triiodothyronine. The main function of thyroid hormones is to increase the overall metabolic rate. Thyroxin also increases heart rate and also the sensitivity of some tissues to catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine).
Negative Effects of Stress
When you are unable to efficiently cope with stress or if the stress persists over a long period of time it leads to negative systemic effects. Stress affects the body in many ways. Stress affects both physical as well as mental health.
Some of the prolonged effects may be individualized, but some of the effects are common to every individual. Most of the effects are associated with increased concentrations of corticoids and adrenaline. Some major effects on the body systems are :
Inconsistent eating habits, acid reflux, diarrhea, or constipation are the common symptoms seen in stressed persons. Chronic stress is also associated with obesity leading to many other negative effects.
Though there is no clear evidence that stressful life events promote the development of diabetes in children or in adults. In addition to that, hormonal changes occurring during acute and chronic stress can also affect glucose homeostasis in both healthy people and in those with diabetes.
Several studies have reported a negative effect of acute stress on the maintenance of blood glucose concentrations in patients with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
Both adrenaline and cortisol affect heart and blood pressure when active over long periods of time. Too much adrenaline makes blood pressure go up which in turn affects the functioning of the heart since the heart has to pump harder and faster.
This can produce coronary heart disease, strokes, and sudden cardiac arrest. Stress has been reported to be a predictor of incidents of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) and hypertension. Stress can cause increased oxygen demand on the body spasm of the coronary blood vessels and electrical instability in the heart’s conduction system.
Chronic stress also leads to increased blood cholesterol levels
The persistently high levels of cholesterol and other fatty substances in the blood may cause atherosclerosis and sometimes may be a reason for a heart attack.
Cortisol also plays role in the accumulation of abdominal fat leading to obesity. Occupational stress also has a significant influence on the onset of CHD.
Schnall PL, Landsbergis PA, Baker D (1994) Job strain and cardiovascular disease. Annu Rev Public Health 15: 381-411.
Eaker ED (1998) Psychosocial risk factors for coronary heart disease in women. Cardiol Clin 16: 103-111.
Torpy JM, Cassio L, Glass RM (2007) Chronic Stress and the Heart. JAMA 298: 1722.
Fumio K (2004) Job Stress and Stroke and Coronary Heart Disease. JMAJ 47: 222-226.
The persistent activation of the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis in chronic stress response impairs the immune response leading to several types of infections. Studies have shown that people under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like flu and common cold as well as other infections.
Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Skoner DP, Rabin BS, Gwaltney JM Jr (1997). Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold. JAMA 277: 1940-1944.
The high levels of stress hormones suppress the release of cytokines chemicals secreted by Th cells. Cytokines regulate both cell-mediated and humoral immune responses in the body.
Chronic stress may dysregulate cytokines that can lead to suppression of both cell-mediated and humoral immune responses, as well as systemic inflammation.
Proinflammatory cytokines produce symptoms of fatigue, malaise, diminished appetite, and listlessness, which are the symptoms usually associated with depression.
Segerstrom SC, Miller GE (2004) Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychol Bull 130: 601-630.
Neil S, Ironson G, Siegel SD (2008) Stress and Health: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants. Annu Rev Clin Psychol 1: 607-628.
In some cases, stress could also be a cause of cancer. The persistent activation of the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis in the chronic stress response and in depression probably impairs the immune response. It can also contribute to the development and progression of some types of cancer. Studies have indicated that stress can promote breast cancer cell colonization of bone.
Reiche EM, Nunes SO, Morimoto HK (2004) Stress, depression, the immune system, and cancer. Lancet Oncol 5: 617-625.
Since sex life depends on the fitness of both body and mind, chronic stress may decrease libido. It may even cause erectile dysfunction or impotence in men. In the case of chronic stress, testosterone levels can drop to an extent that can interfere with spermatogenesis (sperm production). In women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle. It can lead to irregular, heavier, or more painful periods .
2 Foods That Decrease Stress
There are many foods that can help you with stress. The reason many foods decrease stress is that they usually help rev down the stress response. There are many common foods that will help you get through your stressful times.
Chronic stress leads to poor food choices that further increase inflammation, this is why it is important to eat healthily and dial down on nutrition.
The main reason why oatmeal helps with stress and anxiety is that it boosts serotonin. Seratonin is a natural feel-good neurotransmitter. Oatmeal increases serotonin due to the fact that it is a good source of tryptophan.
Tryptophan is a precurses to serotonin and studies are looking at whether levels of tryptophan have an impact on mood. Oats are also a complex carb high in fiber, and rich in vitamin B, magnesium, and potassium.
Those nutrients play a key role in blood sugar stabilization, mood, and energy. Fiber has been shown in some studies to decrease oxidative stress and inflammation. Stable electrolyte levels help with heart function and blood pressure.
Tea has been around for thousands of years. There is a wide assortment of teas but specifically, black tea has been associated with calming and relaxing properties. There are 2 major players when it comes to tea having these beneficial effects. L-theanine and catechins are responsible for the destressing functionality of tea .
L-theanine is an amino acid commonly found in tea and certain mushrooms. L-theanine facilitates relaxation by boosting GABA, serotonin, and dopamine. It also reduces the amount of cortisol in your system.
What is really interesting is that l theanine increases alpha brain waves which are associated with wakeful relaxation while promoting attention and creativity.
According to a study shown on WebMD, tea drinkers showed a drop in cortisol levels and decreased platelet aggregation after a stressful situation .
Catechins are naturally occurring phenols, also known as antioxidants. It helps combat oxidative stress. It has also been linked to the inhibition of corticosteroid-induced anxiety and stress .
Learn more about stress response by watching the full Episode 82 here 👇
0:45 Cup of Nurses Introduction
2:28 Episode Introduction
2:45 The Stress Response
16:33 Negative effects of stress
16:46 Effects of Stress in Digestion
19:02 Effects of Stress in Circulation
20:49 Effects of Stress on Immunity
27:12 Effects of Stress in Reproduction
33:00 2 Foods that Decrease Stress
33:25 Foods that decrease stress: Oatmeal
35:23 Foods that decrease stress: Tea