Stress is all around us and very hard to avoid because it is hardly up to us whether or not we get stressed. Our bodies decide our stress levels independently without consulting us and this makes it one of the hardest hypertension risk factors to control.
Whether or not you feel the side effects yet, too much stress over an extended period of time can result in serious physical and mental health problems ranging from depression to increased blood pressure. But many individuals are unaware of the changes and functions in the body that are triggered by stress – in fact, a large number of people actually think the changes are just mental.
This article looks to discuss, in simple terms, what stress actually does inside your body.
Stress and Your Hormones
When we are stressed, the body releases certain hormones that affect bodily functions in various ways. Two of the main hormones released are cortisol and adrenaline.
Elevated cortisol levels can lead to decreased bone density, increased weight gain and a compromised immune system. It also leads to an increase in blood pressure and can persist over an extended period if constantly exposed to some stimulus that our body considers a stressor.
Adrenaline, on the other hand, comes and goes more quickly and is much easier to detect a spike because it is usually accompanied by an increase in heart rate. It also increases blood pressure, energy and alertness.
Hormones and Your Blood Pressure
Both adrenaline and cortisol are involved in a natural defense mechanism your body has that’s often referred to as the “fight or flight” defense.
Fight or flight is your body’s natural ability to quickly prime itself when faced with danger to either stay and fight, such as through pumping oxygen into the muscles and pulling extra blood to your internal organs, or providing the stamina and alertness to run away. An abundant and constant supply of oxygen rich blood is necessary to achieve these functions and the only way for the body to supply that blood is by altering the cardiovascular system, ie. increasing heart rate and blood pressure.
Stress is highly capable of initiating varying levels of the fight or flight response, causing the brain to send a signal to the adrenal glands to pump out the necessary hormones to respond, even if there’s no real danger.
Most of us are familiar with the short-term effects of too much stress. Common symptoms include an increased heart rate, faster breathing, tension in the muscles and increased sweating.
In short, periodic bursts, these symptoms may be uncomfortable, but are not necessarily damaging to the body, and only result in short-term changes in blood pressure.
After the danger (real or perceived) has passed, our body returns to the default state it was in before.
Sometimes, however, stressors are not sudden but are actually consistent over an extended period with a slow and steady build that doesn’t produce noticeable symptoms such as the spike in heart rate. This does not mean that your heart rate doesn’t increase, it simply means that the climb can be so gradual that you don’t even notice.
The average resting heart rate for adults is 60 to 100 beats per minute, but most people are unaware that their heart is beating the vast majority of the time. If someone with a 60 bpm heart rate suddenly had a 100 bpm rate in a few minutes, they would certainly notice, but if the heart rate only increased by 1 bpm per week, that would be virtually imperceptible and be over 100 in less than a year.
This is the same with your blood pressure, except that blood pressure changes are much less noticeable than heart rate. In fact, this is why high blood pressure is called “the silent killer”.
Long-term stress leads to chronic constriction of arteries and blood vessels, in addition to the increase in heart rate. This is how stress-induced hypertension is created.
When your blood pressure is consistently high and untreated, damage to the arteries and vital organs such as the heart and kidneys can occur, and many people actually discover they have high blood pressure during a routine check up or after damage has already occurred (“silent killer”).
Chronic stress can also lead to lethargy and sedentary living which can further escalate your blood pressure issues, making it even that much harder to control and increasing the possibility of long term damage. The heart is a muscle and therefore needs to be exercised by being active.
If we don’t get enough exercise, the heart will weaken and have to work harder to pump blood throughout the body. What then happens is the heart will thicken and/or harden, and neither of these is ideal.
Dangers of High Blood Pressure
Over time, increased pressure on the blood vessels causes both damage to the walls and an overall narrowing of the vessel itself. Not only does this cause the vessels to be less flexible, it reduces blood flow to the rest of our body. Damaged vessels also trap fat more easily, resulting in clogged vessels, increasing your risks for heart disease, stroke and heart attack.
Weakening of the arteries through high blood pressure also puts you at a higher risk for aneurysms. An aneurysm occurs when the constant high pressure causes part of the vessel wall to bulge out. This enlarged area can eventually burst, causing internal bleeding that can cause death, especially since aneurysms are common in the aorta of your heart, the body’s largest artery.
Other damage that can occur due to hypertension are kidney, brain and eye damage.
Hypertension treatment starts with a professional diagnosis. If you’ve never had your blood pressure taken or haven’t done so in over a year, you should have it measured as soon as possible.
Treatments is usually dependent on how bad it is. If it’s elevated but not necessarily a cause for concern, your doctor may suggest lifestyle changes and natural remedies before placing you on medication.
But even if you are placed on medication, suggestions such as the ones mentioned below can still help a lot, even by helping you reduce how much medication is needed for treatment.
If you can identify situations that may be stressing you out, you should first try to remove them from your life. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done because many people don’t even know they’re stressed or are unable to pinpoint or remove the stressor(s).
Exercise provides a double punch to poor blood pressure numbers by both providing an alternative outlet to release stress while at the same time helping you maintain a healthy weight and strengthening your overall cardiovascular health, all things that contribute to a healthy blood pressure level.
The great thing about exercise is that you don’t need to buy a gym membership and reserve extra hours out of your day to see the benefits. A brisk walk for about an hour each day is more than enough to greatly improve your health and wellbeing.
Breathing and Meditation
Simply taking time out in the morning or throughout your day for 10 to 15 minutes of breathing exercise and meditation can also help combat stress. This type of mind-body complementary medicine goes back thousands of years and works by calming the mind and eliminating the jumbled mess of thoughts that are contributing to your stress levels. Even better, these benefits continue well after your 10 minutes are over.
Another way to calm your mind and combat stress-related high blood pressure is to utilize essential oils. Oils like lavender, vetiver, chamomile, rose, frankincense, and ylang ylang are all great choices for great natural stress relievers that will leave your body and mind body feeling relaxed.
Sometimes we feel that we have to face the world alone or that no one cares about our feelings.
However, talking to someone else can often help reduce the mental load on your body and allow you to leave stress behind. Find a counselor you feel comfortable with and devote time in sessions to truly facing and removing thoughts that are causing stress in your life, no matter how big or small you think they are.
Neglecting to manage stress in your life not only impacts your overall quality of life but can also impact the length of your life if left if allowed to run its course. Luckily, simple life changes can knock down your stress levels, lower your blood pressure, and helps ensure a long, healthy life moving forward.
Modify Your Eating Habits
What you consume on a day-to-day basis can hurt or help your recovery efforts. Stay away from unhealthy (trans and unsaturated) fats, sugar and sodium.
Opt for more fruits and vegetables and avoid fast, processed and packaged foods at all costs. Fast, processed and packaged foods are typically high in sodium and unhealthy fats that will only undermine your efforts to improve your blood pressure.
You should also up your intake of omega 3 nutrients by consuming more fish, nuts and other potent sources. Omega 3’s improve brain function and makes us happier and sharper.