About Stress

This is part of our ongoing The Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging spotlight. Each week, we will be posting some of the great information that’s packed into our book, The Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging.

Today’s topic:

The body has a high capacity to adapt to stressful situations that can take various forms. Regardless of the stressors we throw its way, the body has an amazing capacity to react to them and recover normal functionality. However, without the support it needs on a constant basis to overcome stressful situations, even the body can show signs of breakdown, and wear and tear. The effects of chronic stress are well-documented. High levels of constant stress are bad for the body and diminish health. The nature of stressors can be in the form of physical stress or mental and emotional stress. Any of these types of stressors can trigger the body’s stress response. The ability of the body to cope with stress determines the level of health in any individual.

The body’s stress response can be divided into three general phases in accordance with the work of the stress researcher Hans Selye. These three phases of the stress response include the alarm phase, the resistance phase, and the exhaustion phase. The alarm reaction involves what we know as the fight or flight response.

In this acute phase, which is a normal component of the body’s stress response, signals from the pituitary gland cause the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and other stress hormones. This allows the body to maintain a high state of vigilance to quickly react to the stressor it is facing. Heart rate increases as blood is circulated to the peripheral tissues in preparation for quick action. The rate of breathing increases and the supply of oxygen to the brain is increased. Blood sugar also increases in response to perceived need by the muscles.

While this initial phase arms the body for the short haul, the second phase of the stress response prepares the body to cope with extended periods of stress, and is known as the resistance phase. Cortisol and related hormones of the adrenal cortex are responsible for the physiological effects of this phase. The effects of the cortisol response include the conversion of protein into energy so the body has enough energy stores to cope with the depletion of its glucose supply. Other short-term effects of the resistance phase include providing the body with the emotional strength it needs to cope with stress and enhance its ability to perform strenuous work, while promoting a strong immune reaction. Cortisol is quite necessary when the body is faced with acute stressors; yet prolonged elevations in cortisol levels, and hence prolonging the resistance phase, can lead to detrimental health effects.

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