Stress and Its Effect Upon Women’s Health
Basically, the only time that we don’t have stress is when we are dead. In our lives, as individuals, we are constantly being exposed to physical, emotional, mental and/or spiritual stress. Although much of the stress that we experience is unavoidable, and what we would call “every day stress” in our lives, it causes the same physiological response in our body as being in a serious accident does. Unless we take active measures to reduce stress in our lives, our everyday stress [both good and bad stress is still stress] builds up, and eventually can cause damage in us.
Hans Selye’s, the internationally recognized endocrinologist developed the General Adaptation Syndrome [GAS] model for discussing stress which is shown in the following illustration.
Health practitioners talk about the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis [also called dynamic equilibrium]. Homeostasis is defined in Dorland’s Medical Dictionary as:
“a tendency to stability in the normal body states [internal environment] of the organism. It is achieved by a system of control mechanisms activated by negative feedback”
What this means to every individual in their daily life, is that any change or stress [including poor nutrition] in a person’s life creates change or stress in the body. This forces the body to react to this change or stress to get everything in the body back into balance. This is shown in the following illustration.
The person in the illustration is standing on a teeter totter and by shifting their weight very slightly at times, and with the use of their arms and legs, the person is keeping the teeter totter level.
The General Adaptation Syndrome [GAS] model for discussing stress is usually broken down into 3 phases. These are:
- the Alarm Phase
- the Resistance Phase
- the Exhaustion Phase
The Alarm Phase
Initially, when a person is exposed to stress, their body goes into the fight or flight response. The adrenal glands pump their hormones into the blood stream to speed up the heart rate and prepare the body’s muscles to fight or to run [flight]. Once the threat or excessive stress is gone, the adrenal glands stops pumping hormones into the blood stream, the heart rate decreases, and the muscles relax.
This can be seen in the following illustration where the stress has caused the teeter totter to tilt and the person has to use more energy and effort to get the teeter tooter back to the level position.
If the stress continues and/or more stress occurs it becomes mere difficult and forces the body to use more and more energy to get the teeter tooter back to the level position. As the stress doesn’t end, the body is almost constantly in the fight or flight response and the nervous system and the adrenal glands cannot rest and heal. Over time, this can cause damage not only to the nervous system, the adrenal glands, and other glands in the endocrine system [ex. the thyroid, the pancreas], but also other organs that have to work harder when there is continued stress [ex. the heart].
Some health practitioners separate the Resistance Phase into two phases – Maladaptive Phase I and Maladaptive Phase II. This can be seen in the following illustration.
During Maladaptive Phase I, there is the beginning of changes and damage in the body due to the ongoing stress. In Maladaptive Phase II, there is more severe changes and damage in the body. The following illustration shows how it becomes extremely hard for a person to bring the teeter tooter back to the level position when there is so much ongoing stress.
If nothing is done to decrease the ongoing stress, the body reaches the exhaustion phase and ultimately, death can occur, fulfilling the saying that “stress kills”. The following illustration shows an exhausted person.
An analogy that I used to explain to women how stress affects the adrenal glands is as follows. Imagine that your adrenal glands are like a bucket. This is shown in the following illustration.
Normally, during the night, while you are sleeping, your bucket is filled up with energy. This is shown in the following illustration.
When you wake up in the morning, you have a bucket full of energy to use during the day. This is shown in the following illustration.
When you are under stress, it is like a hole is made in your bucket. Although your bucket is filled with energy at night, some of the energy runs out of your bucket during the night. Either you wake up with energy, but it doesn’t last through the day, or you wake up tired, but can struggle through the day. This is shown in the following illustration.
If your stress continues for a long time, the hole gets bigger and bigger. Finally, one night, the hole in your bucket is so big that, although your bucket may be completely filled during the night, most or all of the energy runs out of the hole. When you wake up in the morning, you feel as though you haven’t slept and feel completely exhausted. This is shown in the following illustration.
Just being tired from a poor sleep, creates more physical and emotional stress, and causes the body to use more energy just to deal with the stress. Thus the vicious cycle continues unless something is done to decrease the stress and both the nervous system and the adrenal glands are supported.
The main hormone associated with stress is cortisol which is made in the adrenal glands. DHEA, which in menopause, is used to make the sex hormones, is also made in the adrenal glands. DHEA is directly linked to the level of cortisol in a woman’s body.
Common signs of that a woman can have when she is has low cortisol are:
- asthma attacks
- fatigue in the morning
- flu-like symptoms
- general aches and pains
- has uncontrollable anger
- increased risk of infections
- inability to handle stress
- is upset easily
- low blood pressure
- mental exhaustion
- muscle stiffness
- no energy/feels burnt out
- no interest in sex
- sensitivity to the cold
- shingles attacks
Common signs that a woman can have when she has high cortisol are:
- a decrease in concentration and memory
- a serotonin depleted state [depression]
- a weakened immune system
- a decrease in lean body mass
- excess insulin
- hair loss
- high blood pressure
- inability to grow nails
- low DHEA
- lower progesterone levels
- mood swings
- no interest in sex
- tired, yet “wired” and ready to go
- thinning skin
- weight gain
- Syndrome X [hyperinsulinemia / insulin resistance]
Common signs of that a woman can have when she is has low DHEA are:
- easily fatigued with exercise
- high cortisol
- insomnia [problems falling asleep and/or staying asleep]
- low or non-existent sex drive
- low testosterone
- more rapid aging
- muscle wasting
- muscle weakness
- poor memory
- weight gain
- vaginal dryness
Common signs that a woman can have when she has high DHEA are:
- growth of facial hair
- high DHEA
- leads to more rapid aging
- oily skin
- polycystic ovary syndrome [PCOS]
- Syndrome X [hyperinsulinemia/insulin resistance]
- weight gain