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The DNA of stress

What stress does at a molecular level.

By Gwen Reyes-Amurao, M.D.


Stress is a normal part of everyday life, despite its negative connotation—and you can actually benefit from it. It allows you to be on your toes, sharpens your alertness, and helps you avoid danger. In some cases, it can even push you to achieve goals, get through challenges and help you be at your best.

Eustress vs distress

Our bodies are designed to experience and combat stress. Exposure to certain difficult situations causes a series of reactions known as the stress response system. The trigger or stressor can either produce a positive or negative response—respectively known as eustress or distress. Stressors aren’t necessarily classified as being good or bad—it’s how you perceive them that make them so.

According to Medical Physiology, biological stress stimulates the release of two main hormones: the adrenocorticotropic hormone, which releases adrenaline; and the corticotropin-releasing hormone, which produces cortisol or the primary stress hormone. Physiologic triggers of adrenaline include excitement, physical threats, even bright lights, loud noise or a warmer-than-usual climate. Adrenaline increases the heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure, affecting all muscles and decreasing sensitivity to pain. A sudden increase in adrenaline signals the body to use up its fat and glucose stores to provide a surge of energy needed in the fight-or-flight response.

Your body on stress

Apart from the hormones produced by the adrenal gland, chemical messengers known as catecholamines—dopamine, epinephrine or adrenaline, and norepinephrine—can also be released from certain areas in the brain. If someone isn’t able to recall specific details during a fire in their home, it’s because adrenaline suppresses activity in an area of the brain responsible for short-term memory, concentration, inhibition and even rational thought. It also activates the part of the brain called amygdala, which brings about emotions like fear—this helps the brain learn from the stressful event.

For vital organs to function properly, the brain immediately signals the body that the more important organs should be supplied with oxygen-rich blood. This leads to a decrease in blood flow to less vital organs such as the skin, immediately diverting blood towards major organs that are affected by stress, such as the lungs, the brain and the muscles of the body.

Stress and the sexes

According to the National Institute of Health, 43 percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress, while 75 to 90 percent of all doctors’ consults are for stress-related ailments and complaints. Although stress affects both sexes, a study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology says women are more likely to experience ongoing stress than men. But when coping, women were less likely to flee the stressful situation. In a Psychological Review study cited in a Harvard University Health publication, women were more likely to tend-and-befriend when stressed—a natural nurturing behavior found in females, especially mothers. The study claims that female sex hormones and the pituitary hormone oxytocin are responsible for this behavior in women that helps alleviate anxiety. During times of stress, men are known to release the hormone testosterone, which explains why men tend to be more hostile and aggressive, even violent when confronted with stressful situations.

Aside from cardiovascular complications, metabolic, respiratory and even psychiatric or psychological problems may arise from long-term stress. Even at the molecular level, the predominance of stress hormones affect certain areas of the brain, which eventually lead to weathering and structural changes that may cause permanent damage to the brain.

Stress, when not addressed properly, can lead to permanent and irreversible damage. It’s a normal part of everyday life, but stressing about it shouldn’t be.

Find out about the warning signs of stress and get tips to combat its effects in the holiday issue of HealthToday magazine, out now in bookstores and newsstands.

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