How many saber-toothed tigers tried to maul you to death today? Hopefully, the stressors in your life don’t involve an apex predator chasing you through the bush. Still, ever wonder, “What does stress do to the body?”

Stress affects us the same way it did our cavemen ancestors. We are still wired for stress physiologically much the same way we were millennia ago, with our primordial fight or flight response well alive within us to keep us alert and safe.

Though not all stress is bad, we need a break from bad stressors, otherwise our health may begin to deteriorate.

HEALTH BREAK: How to relieve stress

Modern humans battle bad stressors that might not seem like a fight or flight scenario — staying in an unhealthy or challenging relationship with a partner; financial hardships; job dissatisfaction; drug and alcohol abuse; nagging mother-in-laws — all this distress may cause the body to:

  • Elevate blood pressure
  • Increase heart rate
  • Slow down digestion and metabolism
  • Flood the bloodstream with chemicals like adrenalin and cortisol
  • Tense up muscles

Have a white-knuckle commute on the freeway to work every morning? Welcome to this modern life’s version of the caveman being chased by the saber-tooth tiger. Though you might not have to flee your car and run, the same chemical cocktails are coursing through your body as the caveman’s.

Cortisol: Like adrenaline, it helps us deal with stress, but too much of it can be harmful

Cortisol is one of those chemicals. Excessive cortisol can be damaging to the body. Research has linked it to body fat storage around the abdomen. In turn, piling on the pounds around the belly can lead to heart disease.

Excessive cortisol flooding the bloodstream can lead to adrenal exhaustion. Some doctors believe that adrenal exhaustion (think: someone who is constantly tired) is the main culprit behind every chronic disease. Some doctors think that the mainstream medical profession fails to recognize adrenal burnout as a real health concern.

WebMD reports that 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are stress-related, but in its assessment of stress on the body, nowhere does it mention adrenal fatigue due to excess cortisol, which is sometimes referred to as “the stress hormone.”

Failing to cope with bad stress, and thus severely fatiguing the adrenal glands (which rest over the kidneys), has a domino effect on the body’s many symptoms and functions, including:

  • Hormonal (hormonal pathways can be disrupted)
  • Musculoskeletal (you won’t burn fat as efficiently and gain muscle)
  • Immune (adrenal fatigue from bad stress wreaks havoc on the immune system)
  • Digestive (bad stress slows digestion, chronic digestion problems may arise)
  • Cardiovascular (adrenal fatigue can lead to heart palpitations and other problems)

Eating the wrong foods can also lead to adrenal exhaustion

As if mounting bills and a tenuous marriage weren’t enough stress to make your blood vessels dilate, your pupils enlarge, your breathing rapidly increase and your sweat glands kicking into overdrive, perhaps reading that eating an unhealthy diet also plays a major role in contributing to adrenal fatigue.

How? Eating the wrong foods over many years can break down the mucosal barrier in your gut. Think of the mucosal barrier as the body’s second skin as well as the body’s first line of defense against pathogens, or unwanted nasty critters invading your gut.

Your immune system lies mostly in your gut, so if over the years you continue eating poorly, the integrity of the mucosal barrier system becomes severely compromised. In the long run, digestion is compromised. With most of your immune system residing in your gut, your immune system will weaken.

Proper course of action for those with adrenal burnout

Concerned about what stress has done to your body? Seek a medical professional or alternative health practitioner who understands adrenal fatigue and knows how to restore hormonal pathways (Stress robs the body of certain hormones like pregnenolone to produce cortisol; over time this leads to more imbalances.) A nutritional approach to battling stress should also be applied.

How has stress affected your body? Let us know below.

Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, California.