The first thing to understand is that stress is a natural physical response to what is going on around us. It has been called the ‘fight or flight response’. In effect it is preparing the body for a suitable reaction to a very real physical threat.

In evolutionary terms this has played an enormously valuable role for survival – if you come face-to-face with a sabre-toothed tiger, you need to do something vigorous, and quickly!

However, the issues that create problems have changed for modern people, whereas the response has remained the same. As a result our bodies are regularly geared up to fight or run away when neither behaviour pattern is acceptable or desirable!

We are all affected by fast-paced lives and multiple responsibilities from which there is no escape (although running sometimes feels like a good idea!). In other words, we are all living with difficult situations on a daily basis, and the only solution is to learn to manage our responses satisfactorily.

Types of stressors

Many life events lead to stress. Interestingly, people can respond to the same situation quite differently – what really upsets one person may have little effect on another.

So it is important to recognise your own personal pitfalls and try to deal with them rationally and effectively. The following are some ideas to help you recognise your own stress-inducing situations:

* Chemical stressors such as nicotine, alcohol, drugs, caffeine and tranquilizers.

* Pressures at work – deadlines, demands from the boss and colleagues etc.

* Decision making – like marriage, or starting a family or divorce.

* Fears and phobias – like fear of flying, fear of public speaking etc.

* Physical stressors – like extreme exercise, hard labour, poor nutrition, sleep deprivation.

* Disease-induced pressures– like migraines, herpes flare-ups, being confined to the house or your bed.

* Chronic pain.

* Environmental issues – like pollution, too much noise, lack of space, extremes of temperature, too much artificial light and too little sunshine.

How does stress work?

When we sense danger the autonomic nervous system is activated. This is the part of the nervous system which is not under our conscious control – the part that keeps our heart beating and ensures that we keep on breathing.

The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The former speeds up all the systems needed for survival, and the latter slows down those that are less essential when under stress.

When danger is perceived many hormones are released:

* The hypothalamus (at the base of the brain) secretes corticotrophin releasing factor which triggers the pituitary gland to release corticotrophin (ACTH).

This stimulates the adrenal glands to release glucocorticoids. These hormones act in a similar way to adrenalin, but more slowly and for longer, backing up the effects of adrenalin for hours.

* The adrenal glands are stimulated to release adrenalin and noradrenalin into the blood stream.

These hormones raise the heart rate, increase blood flow and breathing rate, speed up the transport of nutrients and oxygen to the muscles and prepare the body for ‘battle’. They mobilize stored energy sources, such as fat.

Digestion is stopped and the large intestine is stimulated to offload undigested material to get rid of unnecessary body weight.

The sex drive is decreased – this is no time for such distractions!

The immune system is inhibited to save energy for the immediate crisis. The ability to perceive pain is diminished but cognitive and sensory skills improve.

* The pancreas releases glucagon which raises the circulating levels of glucose in the blood stream, supplying a ready energy source.

* The pituitary gland, in addition to ACTH, also releases prolactin which suppresses the reproductive systems, and vasopressin, which is an antidiuretic hormone meaning that it reduces the need to urinate.

* The brain and pituitary glands also release endorphins and encephalins. These are morphine-like molecules which reduce pain perception.

Interestingly, the body does not respond to difficult situations in a consistent way. In the case of a major physical problem all the hormonal responses are released. If, on the other hand, the situation is perceived to be less threatening only some are involved. Anxiety and vigilance stimulate the release of the adrenalins, while depression and the feeling of giving up tend to stimulate the release of glucocorticoids.

Most of these responses are inefficient and short-sighted, but that is not a problem because they are designed to be short-term. They are brilliant for helping us to run away from that marauding tiger, for example. However, they are totally inappropriate for the daily irritations of modern life such as dealing with traffic and crowds, giving a speech, hearing or reading upsetting news and handling the spiralling costs of food, petrol and health care.

As we have noted, even the good things create pressure – like getting married, starting a family, starting a new job or getting a promotion. These modern stressors are no longer short term – they are chronic – and the normal physiological response does not serve us well under these circumstances. In fact, the risk of disease skyrockets if we fail to take the situation in hand.

Stress and disease

It is now considered indisputable that psychological distress can result in physical symptoms and disease. In fact, medical research estimates that up to 90% of all illness and disease is stress-related!

* Infectious diseases.

Chronic stress is known to lower immunity, and people living under such conditions are more susceptible to infections than normal.

* Cardiovascular disease.

Under stress the whole cardiovascular system is stimulated to work harder. Therefore, it stands to reason that with ongoing or repeated stimulation the system simply wears out.

The most vulnerable areas are where branching of arteries takes place – the lining of the blood vessels gets damaged and scarring increases the deposits that eventually result in atherosclerosis.

Once the cardiovascular system is damaged susceptibility to stressors increases further. As a result situations as varied as extreme physical exertion, anger, and overexcitement, smoking, high blood pressure and personality type can lead to sudden cardiac death.

The good news is that making modifications to ones lifestyle can go a long way to reverse damage to the cardiovascular system thus improving health and wellbeing.

* Diabetes

In adult onset diabetes the body becomes resistant to insulin – the hormone that keeps the blood sugar levels normal by telling the body to store excess sugar (glucose, in particular) as fat.

This continues until the fat cells are full, at which time they become less responsive to insulin. As a result there is too much circulating glucose and fat which causes organ damage, particularly to the kidneys, the blood vessels and the eyes.

The stress response makes the situation even worse. It blocks insulin production and promotes insulin resistance resulting in even higher levels of circulating glucose and fat. The consequence of this is a much higher risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease.

* Digestive problems

When it is under stress, the digestive system shuts down. Little wonder that chronic stress results in disease in this part of the body.

It is currently thought that ulcer development requires at least two predisposing factors to be operating at once, and that one of these is often stress. Chronic difficulties in one's life worsen existing gastrointestinal problems.

* Skin conditions

Skin conditions such as hives and eczema are related to stress.

* Weight gain

As recently as 2007 researchers have found that the body releases a protein called neuropeptide Y in response to stress. This neuropeptide affects certain receptors on fat cells, causing them to increase in number and grow in size.

This means that more fat can be stored when typical energy rich diets are consumed. Interestingly, intra-abdominal fat in particular seems to be a product of our troubling modern lifestyles.

* General aches and pains

The body has an effective way of dealing with pain related short-term stress – it releases endorphins and encephalins. However, when the situation ceases to be short term, the reserves of these compounds are depleted and they are no longer available to deal with the pain effectively.

* Insomnia and fatigue

* Loss of sex drive

Part of the ‘fight or flight response’ involves slowing down the sex drive. This has obvious benefits in the short term, but chronic situations can lead to difficulties in this area.

* Memory problems

Short-term stressors tend to enhance mental agility, presumably to make you better able to cope with the problem at hand. However, prolonged or extreme pressure has the opposite effect.

The positive effect is probably due to the release of adrenalin, noradrenalin and corticoids which increases the glucose concentration in the blood. This in turns brings more energy to the brain, particularly the hippocampus which is responsible for memory placement and retrieval.

During prolonged stress the brain takes up less glucose, thereby reducing its energy supply, and the corticoids actually start to damage the hippocampus. Therefore memory and concentration are impaired.

More recent evidence suggests that the damage is significantly increased if there are other factors involved such as epilepsy, stroke or Alzheimer’s disease and also in victims of abuse.

* Aging

As people age the levels of adrenalin, noradrenalin and glucocorticoids rise. When a stressor is added to the equation, the hormone levels rise even higher, but the body is less responsive to them.

Returning to normal levels again also takes much longer. The effects of the hormones on the hippocampus might explain why age is frequently associated with a decline in mental capacity.

Stress reduction strategies

* Exercise. Regular exercise helps the body to get rid of the toxic by-products of the stress response. It enhances the immune system, boosts circulation and improves sleep.

* Meditation and other relaxation techniques.

* Get organised and unclutter your life.

* Negotiate better situations. For example, work out a way in which the noise in your home can be reduced. Compromises can work wonders.

* Get enough sleep.

* Make time for yourself, and the people who are important in your life. Prioritise all the claims on your time.

* Dietary changes. During difficults times it is essential to increase your intake of all nutrients, and to reduce the intake of unnecessary chemicals such as caffeine, alcohol, recreational and, where possible, medicinal drugs.

Many of them are stimulants which put additional strain on body systems. Avoid eating sugar, refined carbohydrates and sugary drinks. These stimulate the release of cortisol which is often called the stress hormone.

Eat more whole grains, oily fish, lentils, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Nutritional considerations

One of the big problems associated with stress is that it uses up essential nutrients, which are then in short supply for normal physical health.

As a result your requirements for these nutrients go up when life's demands increase. The functions of various nutrients as they relate specifically to stress are given below:

* Vitamin A helps to detoxify the body – the presence of toxins depletes energy levels.

* The B vitamins are often called the stress vitamins. Vitamin B1 is essential for normal nerve function, and also improves mood.

Both Vitamin B1 and Vitamin B2 are involved in energy production. Vitamin B3 is involved in the production of serotonin - a mood-enhancing brain chemical. It also regulates sleep patterns.

Vitamin B5, also called pantothenic acid, controls the function of the adrenal glands which play an essential role in the stress response and is involved in energy production.

Vitamin B6 is also essential for the production of serotonin as well as other proteins such as haemoglobin, insulin and antibodies.

Vitamin B12 is also involved in the production of brain chemicals – a healthy brain allows you to feel good. Together with folic acid, Vitamin B12 is involved in cellular replication.

Choline and inositol are two other members of the B group of vitamins which have a calming effect. Both are involved in the transportation of fats in the body and prevent accumulation of fat in the liver. They also are important for providing nourishment to the brain cells. Inositol is also essential for preventing hypertension.

* Vitamin C is rapidly used up during the stress response, and this contributes to anxiety and irritability. It is a strong antioxidant, and is essential for the metabolism of the adrenal hormones.

Doses considered high by some (1000 mg per day) reduce the expected mental and physical signs of stress. Research has shown that the time it takes to bounce back from troubling situations is lower in people with higher levels of Vitamin C in their blood as compared with people with low levels.

When people were exposed to the same difficult situations, the cortisol levels and blood pressure levels were lower in the high Vitamin C people. In studies on rats, Vitamin C lowered the amounts of stress hormones released threefold, and prevented the animals from exhibiting the usual signs of physical and emotional distress.

* Vitamin E is also a powerful antioxidant which protects cell membranes from oxidative damage. It is essential for a healthy circulatory system which increases transport of oxygen to the tissues. It increases blood flow thereby nourishing all the tissues.

* Calcium and magnesium

Calcium it is necessary for all muscle activity, including the heart. It is also essential for conduction of nervous impulses. Adequate calcium therefore has a calming effect.

Magnesium is also essential for muscle activity and relaxes the nerves. It is an essential component of the enzymes involved in fat, carbohydrate and protein metabolism, so controls energy production. It is essential for optimal functioning of the B vitamins and Vitamin E, and it is necessary for a health cardiovascular system. Furthermore, it assists in relieving depression.

* Chromium: research with both humans and mice has shown that stress increases urinary excretion of chromium. Chromium is essential for sugar and fat metabolism and therefore energy production, and chromium deficiency is associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

* Selenium is also an antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory properties. It plays a role in protecting against heart disease, cancer and viral infections amongst others.

It is essential for production of active thyroid hormone. This is plays a role in regulating metabolism. It also necessary for energy production in heart cells as it ensures an adequate supply of oxygen, and for a healthy immune system.

* Zinc plays a role in a wide variety of bodily functions, and ensuring adequate intakes can alleviate symptoms of stress such as mood changes, depressed mood, nervousness and nervous tension and lack of mental clarity.

* Omega-3 oils, which are deficient in average diets, play a significant role in managing stress. They improve cardiovascular health. They modulate the secretion of adrenal hormones such as cortisol, and they ameliorate conditions such as depression, aggression, memory loss and learning difficulties.

For the basics of nutrition that will keep you in good health and minimise the ill-effects of stress, see our pages on Health Foundations.

To sum up:

It is almost impossible to avoid challenging situations in our modern world. Our natural “fight or flight” response, which is perfect for straightforward crises like escaping from a tiger or avoiding a motor accident, is actually damaging to our body if it becomes an incessant long-term problem. As a result, stress-related diseases have become a chronic health hazard.

If we can’t always avoid the problems, we can learn how to deal with them and minimise their damaging effects. One of the effects of stress is that it uses up and depletes the nutrients that we normally take in, thus weakening our immune system and making us more vulnerable to disease.

A sensible solution is to take nutritional supplements and, because modern life is almost constantly trying, it would be wise to make supplementation a part of your daily lifestyle.