The Toxic Effects of Chronic Stress

The last few months of the ActiveRx venture felt like I was at the controls of an airplane plummeting toward earth with one engine out and the other sputtering and on fire. I was frantically trying to pull us out of the dive, but there was nothing that could be done. All the good people on board, our investors, other franchisees, and employees, were going down with the aircraft. There were no parachutes. 
 
Professionally, that was the most stressful experience of my life. The pressure was agonizing and unrelenting. 
 
In an earlier message we spoke about how the body reacts to stress. We secrete beneficial hormones, one of which is cortisol. 
 
Let’s discuss the effects that excess cortisol has on our bodies and brains in circumstances of continuous stress
 
Throughout those torturous final months, mine suffered all the deleterious effects of rampant cortisol flooding my bloodstream. 
 
What sleep I could get would be interrupted by disturbing night-sweats. I would wake up in the small hours, my teeth grinding furiously, completely soaked as if I’d jumped in a pool. 
 
My brain fog was so pronounced that my vision blurred on the periphery like those old-timey photos. I struggled to focus on even simple tasks in spite of exerting all the willpower I could muster to concentrate and be productive. It felt like I was swimming through a thick murky soup. 
 
I got fat. I knew that the only way I could continue to function was subjecting myself to punishing workouts as often as my schedule would allow. In spite of that, I put on 30 lbs, all of it around my belly. 

The hopelessness I felt extinguished any spirit of charity, optimism, or gratitude. I was an intolerable crankapotomus, with no patience or empathy. The only time that I wasn’t angry was when I was too tired to care about much of anything. Sadly, Julie and my girls had to live with me and bore the full brunt of my sharp tongue.
 
Compounding this was the guilt I felt at abandoning Jules to manage our local franchise completely on her own. She put in endless weeks, running a complex healthcare practice, without a dime of compensation or an ounce of support or appreciation from me. 

Rampant cortisol become toxic

In circumstances like this, when we are unable to shut off the switch that is pumping cortisol into our system, the balance of the hormone tips and it becomes toxic. 
 
At the cellular level, the leaf-like connectors of neurons, called dendrites, retract like a turtle pulling its head into its shell. They literally pull away from their neighboring nerve cells and begin to lose contact. 
 
It suppresses the secretion of the magical neurotransmitters that do so much good, serotonin and dopamine, while inhibiting the production of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor), the Miracle-Grow like neurochemical that facilitates the creation of new brain cells (neurogenesis). So, as the brain cells pull away from each other, there is also a decrease in the amount of messenger hormones that carry signals from one neuron to the next. Then, newborn stem cells that might have grown up to be fresh brain cells, wither and die off in their infancy. 
 
This destructive process is particularly damaging to an area of the brain that is vital to memory, the hippocampus. Numerous studies have demonstrated the frightening shrinkage of the hippocampus in people suffering from chronic stress. 
 
You’ll remember from my earlier post that part of cortisol’s job is to marshal resources the body might need to respond to the stress. When we have a persistent imbalance of the hormone, we develop insulin resistance and high blood sugar, often leading to diabetes. It also induces systemic inflammation which can accelerate and exacerbate high blood pressure, heart disease, lead to stroke, even switching on genes that cause cancer. Yikes! 
 
Cortisol stores energy as belly fat. Understandably, we are often preoccupied with the aesthetics of double chins, big butts, and flabby arms. But belly fat is correlated to a long list of dreadful diseases. 
 
An incessant flow of cortisol will hammer our immune system, not only leaving us vulnerable to nasty germs but potentially triggering auto-immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, irritable bowel syndrome, MS, and psoriasis. 
 
As bad as all that, the psychological toll of chronic stress is just as concerning. If left unresolved, chronic stress often evolves into anxiety disorders and can lead to clinical depression. We will dive a little deeper into anxiety disorders in my next missive.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” 

A favorite quote of mine from my favorite author, Ernest Hemingway. 
 
Julie and I crawled broken and bloodied from the wreckage of the ActiveRx disaster. There’s no question that the consistent vigorous exercise that we adhered to throughout that trying experience fortified us to bear up under the strain. Like so many of life’s hardships, that too resulted in something good – MidStrong.
 
Afterward, we were “strong at the broken places.”
 
I’m going to make one last plug to persuade you that exercise is our most potent antidote to chronic stress. See below for 8 ways that exercise works to reverse the damage it brings

If you find any of this compelling, it would be a huge help to us for you to share it with your friends and loved ones. Jules and I believe there are so many more folks who we could help. We are forever grateful for your support in helping us to reach a wider audience. There are social share buttons below that make it easy to do so through social media. 

Strong of body, strong of mind!

8 Ways Exercise Works to Reverse the Damage Done by Chronic Stress

  1. It builds mental toughness, elevating our stress threshold, better equipping us to handle the volume and persistence of stress. 
  2. It strengthens our cardiovascular system, our muscles, bones, and nervous system which makes us more physically capable of carrying the burdens that chronic stress will impose. 
  3. It regulates our fuel supply, using up the surplus of fuel (glucose) that cortisol has triggered, and turns on more insulin receptors in our neuromuscular system which allows that fuel to make its way into the cells that need it. That reduces belly fat and obesity, shielding us from metabolic diseases.
  4. It improves our mood and confidence through the production of necessary neurochemicals that help us to feel better: serotonin and dopamine. 
  5. It boosts our immune system by rallying more antibodies and lymphocytes (T-cells). 
  6. It generates new brain cells, strengthens the ones we have, and enhances the connections with others, through the production of neurotrophins like BDNF. 
  7. It induces better sleep quality which reinforces all of the above.  
  8. Lastly, it teaches us self-efficacy. We come to understand that we are capable of controlling our response to external stressors, even if we can’t control the circumstances that are imposing them on us. We realize that we have agency and can take action that is beneficial to our physical and emotional state of mind.  

Paul Reilly

Paul is the Owner and Founder of MidStrong. He created MidStrong in 2017 to train men and women in midlife who are busy with work and family to build muscle and burn fat so they can look and feel better than they did in their 20’s. MidStrong is making Functional Fitness training safe and fun, and inclusive. He and his wife, Julie also own and operate MidStrong locally, their bricks and mortar business, previously called ACCELERATED Strength & Balance. It is a boutique fitness center specializing in training folks in and around Westborough through the challenges of midlife for more than five years.