A fire races toward your house. This is definitely a stressful situation, but how you handle it may be programmed in your sex genes.
Fight or flight is typically a male response to this type of situation — sticking around to fight the fire or running as fast as you can away from it.
Women have a tend and befriend response to sudden stress. Estrogen blunts the fight or flight response, and we engage in nurturing activities to protect ourselves and our children.
These responses allow us to don a superman or superwoman cape and rise to the occasion. But what happens to our physical and emotional health when the stress is here day in and day out?
Most of us allow stress to sit on our shoulders like unwanted cellulite. You don’t want it, but it tenaciously hangs on.
Stress stimulates the release of various chemicals in our body. The primary stimulating response is the release of catecholamines and corticosteroids, or cortisol, from our adrenal glands. This rush can provide that superwoman response to acute stress.
However, when these hormones are released continuously (with chronic stress), it can affect every area of a woman’s physical and emotional health.
Stress tasks our bodies to chronically make cortisol. To accomplish this, our bodies steal steroid building blocks from our other steroid hormone productions, such as sex hormones (estrogen and progesterone) or body health hormones like DHEA.
This leads to lower levels of these hormones. Many women notice irregularity or cessation of their periods during stressful times in their lives — which may increase the stress.
Understandably, it follows that stress is associated with decreased fertility. But it may surprise you that chronic stress is associated with more pain during a period or with sex, and decreased sexual desire.
Chronic stress can add unwanted pounds through alteration of sugar metabolism and promotion of cravings for comfort food.
The increase in cortisol increases circulating glucose (sugar) and insulin levels in the blood. Insulin promotes storage of sugars, preferentially directing the sugars to be stored in the belly. During this storage, blood sugar levels drop, which then promotes food cravings.
Stress decreases emotional and behavioral control. Food cravings and binge eating are frequent consequences of chronic stress.
From the cookie jar you can hear, “Come on, baby, you know I’m here and tasty. I’ll make you feel better. You deserve it.”
Consumption of high-caloric foods, alcohol, smoking or the use of illicit drugs is a “comfort measure” that women may reach for in times of stress.
Unfortunately, the comfort is short-lived and comes with other stressful consequences.
When we’re under chronic stress, our bodies are bathed in inflammatory mediators and adrenaline. This can be a deadly combination, leading to the development of or worsening of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Increased inflammation can settle in our joints (arthritis or TMJ dysfunction), muscles (headaches, exacerbation of fibromyalgia or chronic pain syndromes), lungs (asthma attacks), gut (ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome), gums (periodontal disease) and bones (osteoporosis).
Our brains are also sensitive to the changes that take place during chronic stress. Depression, anxiety and Alzheimer’s disease can be consequences.
Additionally, the immune system is lowered during chronic stress, which may result in more upper respiratory illnesses and possibly cancer.
As a fire races toward your home, stress can be lifesaving; however, chronic stress can destroy us from the inside out.
By curbing chronic stress, we can reap the benefits of a more healthy body from head to toe.