A Deeper Understanding of Stress

Stress is More than an Emotion

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 90% of visits to health practitioners are due to stress or stress related pathologies which motivates us to gain a deeper understanding of stress and the impact of our stressors.

We usually think about stress as something emotional. But, although it is a big part of it, if you think that stress is only emotional you are doing a big disservice to yourself.

Stress as we saw in the blog “What is stress” is when your homeostasis has been challenged and how you respond to this challenge.

So we could say that Stress = Stressors + Your body’s response to the stressors + the resolution of the body’s response.

It is important to understand what a stressor can be. It is also very important to understand why some people look at what stress is in only one way, while others look at it in other ways.  And it is most important to know more about the little bits of knowledge that have been attached to the concept-of-stress throughout history. 

Once you have a deeper understanding of the evolution of the concept-of-stress, you will have a deeper understanding of what is going on into your own life and within the community that surrounds you.

Dr. Walter Cannon, M.D. and the Fight or Flight Concept

Dr. Walter Cannon, M.D. described in his book in 1932 the fight or flight concept. This is a familiar concept to most of us. You stay to fight or you run away.

Has Selye, Ph.D, and the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)

Hans Selye, Ph.D. from McGill University is the father of physiological stress. He brought forth the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS):

  • Alarm Reaction
  • Resistance
  • Exhaustion

The Three Stages of General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)

Alarm Reaction (Arousal)

This is how your body responds to the stress initially. Some of the signs of being in the Alarm Reaction or Arousal stage are:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Trembling
  • Pale of flushed skin
  • Heightened senses
  • Fear, anger, hopelessness, distrust, grief, anguish
  • Etc.

This is your body trying to deal with all the biochemistry which has been activated by the arousal and to return itself to homeostasis or to restore balance.


Exhaustion comes when your body is having a problem getting back into a balance state. For example, when someone is under chronic stress, it becomes exhausting, and your body is having great difficulties in bringing you back into balance. You lose resiliency and you lose your adaptation capability.  This results in you  “running out of gas.” You become wired then tired and lastly mired.  It’s just like being stuck in the mud. It becomes very difficult for you to live.

If your body can produce the stress resolution, then you are in a good place to keep your resiliency strong and your reserve full.

Be Aware of How your Body is Feeling and What it is Sensing

The key is to develop a keen awareness of how your body is feeling, and what it is sensing. You must clue into YOU and how your surroundings impact YOU.

What could be clues that you are experiencing some stressors (stress)?

Food and Hydration

  • Your clues: choking, problem swallowing, heaviness feeling, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, pain in the abdomen, pain when having a bowel movement, bleeding, swelling, your brain feeling mushy or out of sort, tiredness, exhaustion, no drive, can’t get on with a project, mood swings, joints pain, your hormones are out of balance, you can’t remember anything, rashes, problems with your teeth etc.
  • Stressors (stress): the quality and quantity of food, swallowing your food too quickly, not chewing enough, eating food you are sensitive to, eating too much food, eating not enough food, not drinking enough water, drinking too much alcohol or any, eating junk food, eating processed food, eating contaminated food, having too much sugar, stressful surrounding while eating your food like watching an intense TV show, having toxic mindsets toward food, starvation of your ancestors, small amount of loving human contact as a youngster, your mother going through trauma while pregnant with you, eating while being in a stressful meeting, ruminating thoughts, your genes not functioning properly causing added stress to your body, poor digestive enzymes, your sympathetic nervous system dominating etc.
Stress is Multi-Dimensional

As you can see from this one example stress is not only emotional, it is multi-dimensional. Some other areas you will want to think about as stressors in addition to food and hydration are:

  • Metabolism & Inflammation
  • Sleep
  • Your thoughts/mindsets/previous trauma (yours and/or your parents)
  • Your health genes causing you issues.
  • Temperature, sounds, sight, touch, taste, smell
  • Safety, money, work, family
  • Gravity, humidity, barometric pressure, electromagnetic fields
  • Toxicity (air, food, cleaners, beauty products etc., relationships)
  • Activity, lack of exercises, exercising too much for your particular genes or wrong kind of exercises for you.
  • Time urgency, expectation and anticipation
  • Social environment
  • And a significant one is the MICROBIOME. These little bacteria living in so many places in your body. Many are friendly to us and we wouldn’t live too long without them. Some others not quite as friendly. This is such an important part of us. The friendly ones are like your BFF (Best Friend Forever)  They help you have a great quality of life and they are there for you when you are in trouble. So many symptoms we suffer from can be linked back up to a weak microbiota.

Small Amounts of Stress are Good For our Body

So, when you say you are not under stress, you might want to have a deeper reflection before saying these words. You want to think about your whole surrounding and your internal functioning.

Small amount of stress is actually good for our body. However, many of us live under constant stressors, imposed on us or made by us.

It is these constant stressors which will challenge our resiliency and our reserve. And constant stress will cost us the ultimate price which is our quality of living.

When your stress genes are not functioning properly, it is difficult for you to shut down the axis of stress after experiencing a stressor; therefore, you will be under chronic stress even though the stressor(s) might be gone.

It is important to remember that if your stress genes and immune genes are not functioning properly or have too much stress on them, can turn 90% of your other genes in a position to malfunction.

This is why we need to reflect on the stress (stressors) in our life. Their intensity and their quantity to improve our quality of living, for us, our surroundings and for our community. 

How Does your Internal Body Interact with the Environment?

Understanding how your internal body interacts with your environment and with itself is key. To achieve this requires some detective work on your body and surroundings. Then, you can bring this valuable information to your health practitioner.  They can help you put a solution together and be proactive about your quality of living based on your own unique circumstances.

The problem is that most of us experience so much stress.  We are experiencing physical, emotional, social, and biochemical stress.  And these stresses become a chronic situation. We start to believe that stress is a normal situation and a normal way of living. However, it should not be and is not a normal way of living.  Stress is devastating to us and to our society.

Like most chronic situations that causes damage, stress decreases our resiliency and depletes our reserves. And then, the effect of the stress spills out.

After a while you will have symptoms and/or illness(es). Many times, those symptoms and/or illnesses are consequence of stressors. These stressors most likely started to cause damage to your body a long time ago. Stress impacted your body a little bit at a time. The resilience and reserve of your body slowly creates weaknesses until an issue arises that is diagnosed.

If you look at the diagram below you can see how your brain, central nervous system (CNS) and your peripheral nervous system are closely related to your endocrine (hormones) system, your immune system, digestive system and your genes.

The Internal Neuro Endocrine Network

An Example of the Impact of Stress on the Body

You suffer from sciatica which causes pain down the leg and inflammation of the sciatic nerve. You are taking pain medication for your sciatica, but it is not really helping. Meanwhile, you have been having consistent digestive issues, but it is not interfering with your life. Then you take over-the-counter medicines to manage it. You have aches and pains, but you are not thinking too much about those. The headaches come and go and a few pain medicines seem to make it ok.

You have a stressful job and sit all day at a computer. And you don’t know if your posture at the computer is correct, but you don’t care because you have so many deadlines and expectations.

You love dairy and it is a big part of your diet along with junk food because you have so much to do.

You’re in debt.

When you were little, you had ear infections often along with antibiotics. You cried all the time when you were an infant. Your mother had a caesarean to bring you into this world. You were fed dairy-based formula as an infant. Your parents were under a lot of stress with life and often fighting.

At some point you had your genes mapped out and analyzed. It revealed that you couldn’t break down dairy which produced more inflammation than other people.  However, you really didn’t believe in gene analysis and refused to take actions.

As you read this you can see how from birth to the sciatica, this human body has been hit with many stressors both external and internal. Unfortunately, these stressors were never addressed and the cumulative effects of each of them are now causing decreased resources resulting in not being able to resolve the sciatica.

Where is the Sciatica Really Coming From?

The sciatica may be coming from many issues.  Let’s examine what took place from birth to now:

  • Born from a Caesarean: When you don’t have a birth through the vagina, you are not picking up the very good bacteria which should populate and start your microbiota -just like seeds for a garden. Because your microbiota plays an important role in your immune system by killing bad things that come into our body, you are starting with a compromised immune system. This means less defense, and, with time, it could lead to a compromised defense.
  • Bottle-fed: When bottle-fed, you don’t pick up the good bacteria from the nipples of your mom decreasing the quality of your microbiota therefore compromising the immune system again.
  • Bottle-fed with dairy-based formula: We know from the genes analysis that you don’t produce lactase and cannot break down lactose in the dairy products.

What are the Consequences of these Stressors?

The immune system will see the dairy as an enemy and will start producing inflammation and strong chemicals to deal with this enemy. And because the dairy is present throughout your life, there is an accumulation of the constant inflammation along with the constant production of stress hormone.

Look at the diagram above and starting with food…
  • we can see how food will influence your digestive system and microbiota.
  • Here we have a food “dairy” which, because of the lack of lactase, is shown to the digestive system as an enemy or stressor.
  • Because of the dairy stressor we have activation of the digestive system, microbiota, the immune system, and the nervous system (central nervous & peripheral)
  • The axis of stress is alerted engaging the hypothalamus, pituitary and the adrenal glands (part of endocrine system/hormones)
  • Just think about this dairy stressor being repeated and ingested 3-times per day every day since birth. The immune system is being constantly reactivated and the same for the axis of stress, causing inflammation.
  • This will amount to a spill over in other biochemical pathways and a decrease in your reserve and resistance. The consequences are enormous.
  • And this is only one stressor. What about the others such as:
    • Parents constantly fighting could have imprinted in an issue with safety, activating your axis of stress anytime a safety issue arises in your life. Or, similarly, any time you see someone fighting or you, yourself are fighting it activates your axis of stress.
    • The digestive system malfunctioning and the quality of your microbiota breaking down because of the constant stress and inflammation.  This causes heartburn, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, pain in the gut, mood swings, decrease absorption of good nutrients, decreased production of some vitamins, and good neurotransmitters.
    • And the list goes on and on with all these different systems entangling together.
Is the Body Sending a Bigger Message?

Coming back to the sciatica, the question we need to ask ourselves is: “Is it only a moment of inflammation that is resolving itself immediately?” Or is this symptom (which could be any other symptoms), my body, or my trillions of cells, trying to tell me something and sending me a message about a bigger imbalance?

This is why you need to be a detective for your own good and be an advocate for your body. This is where personalized medicine shines.

When doing some detective work on yourself, don’t forget to include your whole past. Only then will you get a better perspective of what is going on with you.

Hopefully this will bring you to a deeper reflection about what is health and how to examine the stressors around you.

What is Health?

“Chronic inflammation is now recognized as the most significant cause of death worldwide today.” Nature Medicine 2019

We used to define health as the absence of pathology or disease. But with all the research and bringing along a deeper understanding of our physiology, environment, and stressors, defining health as the absence of disease appears to be a little bit outdated.

Most of the time, the functioning of your body needs to have been out of sort for a while before a disease is revealed.

We know that we have a constant exchange in our body between our internal and outside forces that want to change our physiology and resistance a certain way.  Therefore, it may be more appropriate to define health as a system working to give our body the resilience and strength to maintain balance and function.

Hallmarks of Health

So what are the different parts which need to work well for us to be healthy? What are the hallmarks of health?

In their article Hallmarks of Health”, Carlos López-Otín and Guido Kroemer define what needs to work in us for our body to be able to deal with the constant changes and stressors.

López-Otín and Kroemer propose the following:

Response to stress
  • Do you have enough resilience and resources in you to bring your physiology back to normal after a stressful event?
  • When encountering an event like being dunk in cold water or having to hold your breath for quite a while, can your body adapt easily to the situation.
  • If damage is done, does your body have what it needs to repair and regenerate the damage.
Maintenance of Homeostasis/Balance
  • How is the quality and quantity of your sleep?
  • How is your brain and nervous system working? Is there a good balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system? Is there a balanced interaction between the different forces in the body?
  • Are you detoxifying properly? Can you take out the garbage from your body or does the garbage stays behind causing deeper issues?
  • Can you recycle important chemicals or are you depleted?
Keeping the Integrity of Your Different Compartment
  • Is your body strong enough to contain the change/perturbations to one area or is there a spill over to other areas of the body?
  • How are the integrity of your barriers? There are mechanical, chemical and biological barriers in the body. Here is the list below:
  • Mechanical barriers:
    • The skin, the epidermis
    • Hair and don’t forget the hairs inside the nose 
    • Mucus membranes in the respiratory tract, gastrointestinal, urinary and reproductive tracts.
    • Tears
  • Chemical Barriers:
    • Sweat, mucus, tears, saliva, breastmilk
      • Sebaceous glands
      • Urine
      • Vaginal secretion, semen
      • Stomach acid and digestive enzymes
  • Biological Barriers (living organisms that help protect the body):
    • Bacteria living on human skin, urinary, reproductive and gastrointestinal tracts.

All of them work together to give our body the resilience to maintain balance and function. A disruption in them can become pathogenic, causing a progressive or acute derailment of the system and therefore decreased health.

Total Load Effect

We know that the stresses of a major life event, along with the one of altered environment, chemical load, psychological load, physiological load, and work load will contribute to a Total Load Effect (called by Dr. McEwen the allostatic load) which will influence our resilience and therefore our health status.

As we see above, to help ourselves we need to manage our allostatic load and increase our organ reserve.  Only when we start engaging with this kind of thinking can we really work on our health.

Remember, you start one step at the time and the accumulation of good habits will bring you to a much better quality of life.

López-Otín, Carlos, and Guido Kroemer. ‘Hallmarks of Health’. Cell, vol. 184, no. 1, Jan. 2021, pp. 33–63. PubMed,,by%20a%20car%2C%20or%20suffering%20through%20severe%20weather.

Bruce McEwan; The End of Stress as We Know It

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