We all have times where life makes bigger demands on us, and most of the time, our bodies should be well enough equipped for this. However, long term stress can have a deleterious effect on our body, which then permeates through to mood and mental wellbeing. Today we’re asking how does stress affect the body?
The main branch of the nervous system is split into two. The Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic Nervous Systems.
The Sympathetic System is what runs our Fight and Flight responses. It engages when we are afraid, or stressed, but it’s also responsible for getting us up out of bed. We’d have zero motivation if the sympathetic system gave out.
The Parasympathetic System is responsible for rest and restoration. In “the olden days”, when the saber tooth tiger left the bottom of the tree you are hiding in, the parasympathetic system would have kicked in so you could get down off your branch, have your dinner and go and rest.
Today though, there are fewer tigers to run from, but a heck of a lot more demands on our time and resources. Deadlines, money worries, relationship issues….the list goes on and on.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
Let’s go back a step and imagine that we have just hear the ferocious cats growl, but not climbed that tree to escape it yet.
I’ll write it as a summary of things happening in sequence, but obviously many of these things will happen simultaneously in the blink of an eye. Our pupils dilate to allow more light in so we have the best chance of defending ourselves.
Our heart beats faster. We breathe faster and our breathing becomes shallower. To get up there, we are going to have to run fast and jump high, so our muscles need huge amounts of fuel. To supply that, the body moves any resources it doesn’t need to get you away from being a feline dinner, over to get you moving faster.
First to lose its support is the skin. Ever notice how your skin looks vile if you have been stressed? It’s because all of the nutrients it uses have been stolen to make glycogen. Glycogen is the body’s main way of storing glucose, which is then gradually released into the bloodstream in case we need any quick bursts of energy.
The muscles are going to need more oxygen; the heart has changed its normal rhythm to deal with that. Now, the strength of the contractions are much stronger so they can push oxygen round much faster. Lungs, bronchodilation and decreased pulmonary secretions all work together to allow more airflow through the lungs. We can see how the dryness of asthma then becomes a problem for some people.
How Does Stress Affect The Body In Terms Of Digestion
Digestion isn't really that important to getting us up the tree, so power is then stolen from the liver. Peristalsis would normally allow for the smooth transit of waste through the intestines but that’s no longer so important to getting out of the way of the cat, so mobility is compromised as smooth muscles are left in a state of contraction right through the stomach and digestive tract down to the sphincter. You only have to think about how your bum clenches when you have a shock! Now realize that that reverses right back through the system…tension, tension, tension.
The pancreas responds by changing how it manages enzymes and insulin. Remember that the body is in a sugar rich state too, so Type 2 diabetes is also starting to make sense. Diet is a demon, but actually, so is stress.
The urinary system alters too. Kidney output is increased, but urine production is reduced. So where the body was previously cleaning itself well, it no longer is.
So, How Does Stress Affect The Body?
Long term, this sugar rich substrate to the body leads to hyperglycemia, which can then, in turn lead to Type 2 Diabetes.
The ongoing force of heart contractions leads to hypertension, which in turn progresses to high blood pressure and cardiac issues.
How Does Stress Affect The Body’s HPA Axis?
The HPA axis is what begins the cascade of stress hormones. It consists of the Hypothalamus, Pituitary And Adrenals.
When we notice something that may be dangerous going on around us, a part of our brain called our amygdala signals that something is off to the rest of the brain. It does that by sending a domino topple effect to the hypothalamus, which in turn then says to the pituitary gland that it needs to send some different hormones out to the rest of the body.
The pituitary does its bit (we’ll come back to this in a minute) which then instructs the adrenals to do their bit too. This is the bit we are interested in.
The two adrenal glands sit atop the kidneys (so you don’t imagine the whole stress response happens in the brain). The adrenals secrete adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline and noradrenaline are separate, but connected, hormones that fire extremely quickly. Adrenaline floods the system within about 2-3 minutes of the stressful event, and it is this that gives the heart a jolt, for example . Think “Push Epi” in Grey's Anatomy. Epinephrine is another name for adrenaline. Epi is used for many things, including jolting the heart.
So, I am always one to support the underdog, and I feel that cortisol gets a bad press. Everyone blames cortisol for stress. But actually cortisol is a good guy and people overlook that.
In its proper role, cortisol is anti-inflammatory.
Inflammation is a waste of energy when you are trying to escape tigers,. You need to be able to run fast and jump high. Everything else is surplus, so cortisol’s job is to switch inflammation off.
Anything that is anti-inflammatory can only be a good thing, right?
Cortisol is not the problem.
It’s the fact that the stress did not switch off, that is.
When that happens, cortisol turns on its axis and quits being anti-inflammatory. Instead it causes inflammation right across the body. It is also cortisol that creates the glucose rich environment and makes the sugars easier for our brains to absorb. Its job is to make substances more readily available for tissue repair so the more worn down we get by the stress, the harder it has to work to provide these and we can see how this inflammatory state begins to self perpetuate.
Ventro- Medial PreFrontal Cortex.
To you and I…it’s the Off Switch
Working in tandem with the amygdala, the VMPFC acts a little like the rational mind.
It would be quite logical for the guy who sat all day up the tree, hiding from the tiger, to worry that the tiger might be back tomorrow, or the next day or to be hiding in wait under the bed.
The job of the VMPFC is to remind him that it’s unlikely the tiger is under the bed because someone clubbed him to death yesterday, and you all ate him, and anyway how would he get past all those dusty suitcases under there, anyway?
At all times, the VMPFC is the calming voice, saying “shhh….stop worrying, everything is fine.”
Problem is, the VMPFC knows when there are battles it can't win, and eventually if the amygdala is too highly strung, it just stops trying and goes off to read the paper.
With no-one to calm the amygdala’s frequent panicking, the body becomes flooded with cortisol and the inflammatory progression continues.
How Does Stress Affect The Body’s Hormonal Balance
Let’s go back to the pituitary. This gland secretes many other hormones as well as ones to trigger the adrenals. In women, the pituitary tells your ovaries to release eggs, or helps men get erections, for example. It’s easy to see how these can be compromised when the pituitary gland never switches off.
We spoke earlier about how the digestive system responds. Perhaps the most important element is how cortisol then generates Natural Killer Cells that then chip away at the liver, gradually killing off liver cells.
The liver is the foreman of the body, in charge of all detoxification, all enzyme manufacture and storage. When the liver starts to wane, we can expect to see difficulties right across the body.
In particular, skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, but also headaches, migraine and lots of other stress related conditions.
Where is The Door In?
That’s an interesting one, isn’t it? Because for many people the answer, of course, is to take some time off work. If you can remove deadlines and lots of dealing with the phone pinging notifications every five seconds, that can really help. But, in a world of zero hour contracts and inequalities in the workplace, even if you can afford to take sick leave, do you dare?
And actually, if your answer to that was no, that probably tells you a lot about the very place that might be the problem. All that aside though, let’s think about how essential oils can intervene in the process.
So we know that the VMPFC has switched off.
So who else can we recruit to try to calm the nervous system down?
GABA - Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid
GABA is the nervous systems calming neurotransmitter. GABAergic neurotransmission calms the amygdala, preventing it from generating inappropriate emotional and behavioral responses. (Jie, 2018). Researchers believe that that certain neuropsychological diseases may develop because stress has reduced how efficiently the GABAergic network functions (Jie, 2018).
Problematically then, stress reduces the neurotransmitter we need to reduce stress.
However, olfactory nerve cells express GABA when we breathe in certain smells. Clearly, calming smells such as lavender and chamomile are relaxing for many reasons including how they trigger GABA which then, in turn calms the cascade of stress hormones that begins at the amygdala then goes right through the HPA axis.
We breathe soothing fragrances, we calm down.
When we breathe soothing fragrances regularly, we hopefully begin to change our internal chemistry into that of a calmer person.
Likewise essential oils like lavender, chamomile, geranium, vetiver will have the same effects if they are absorbed into the body. This time, their constituents lock onto receptors in the body to act like keys in the door to switch things on and off. Sometimes it is GABA or maybe the mood modulator serotonin, each time bringing our bodies into balance.
And it is a successful plan…but it is only a short term one. Sooner or later, lifestyle changes will have to happen. No-one can keep on facing stress indefinitely. Changes are hard and they can sometimes be very expensive to make, but we only have one heart, and life is precious.
I love this image of people queuing for pills and the one lonely person willing to try and listen to what his or her body has to say and then to make changes. I promise you that at the end of this, it is that one person who will feel better. Every other person will be all too conscious of stress still hot on their heels chasing them, into that inevitable breakdown in health.
The Best Essential Oils For Stress
So relaxing, so soothing, and somehow it seems to distance us from our worries a bit. They’re still there, but you can breathe a bit easier and your thoughts slow down.
Don’t rely on lavender too heavily though, if you are bathing in it etc, because it can begin to dry your skin. Try to rotate it with some of the others.
For me, there is no better oil for stress. Not only does it calm you, so you feel a bit more rational, but it also helps the body to restore some of the power to the adrenal glands. After months of perpetually secreting cortisol, the adrenals are not only exhausted but also trying to hang on for dear life. To be able to do that they steal energy from other places. In particular, the pituitary gland suffers as does the liver. Geranium helps to stop that cascade.
Geranium essential oil in the bath makes stress just lift away. It is always wonderful, but most especially so if you are worrying about money.
It’s a great hormonal balancer, of course, as well as being lightning for your mood, and it is gently soothing after lots of relationship battles.
I always say that chamomile sings Doris Day songs! She just bobs back and from on her thin stalk singing “Que sera sera, whatever will be, will be”. Completely unfazed by the heat of the sun or battered by storms, chamomile’s strength is her flexibility and ability to submit. She doesn’t just get by, she is strong enough to be considered a physician plant. Place her in a border and all the other plants thrive from the support she gives them.
Chamomile just submits everything to the universe. And whilst I don’t subscribe to hiding bills in the drawer or avoiding important conversations, I’ve never found that worrying for worry’s sake a successful way forward either.
Put your big girl pants on, spend some time with Chamomile, you’ll be amazed how quietly courageous you become.
One of the reasons I rate vetiver so highly for stress, is because it is such a sustainable crop. We’ll talk about frankincense in a moment, and yes, it is one of the best essential oils for stress, but the Earth is in dangerously low supply now. If we continue to harvest frankincense at the rate we are going, there will be none left by the year 2050. In every other case, but breathing difficulties, there is some other oil that could take its place.
In the case of slowing the breath, in hyperventilation and panic attacks, vetiver is not only a good substitute, it is better.
Vetiver is not only sustainable, it is a fair trade crop whose trade can better the lives of farmers in some of the poorest communities on this planet.
Its roots dig deep, deep, deep into the ground, and are able to correct some of the biggest ecological challenges we have. It can remove heavy metals and nuclear waste from the soil, and can prevent soil erosion. It provides water for plants that would otherwise die of thirst, if vetiver did not pull it up from the deepest water tables.
In other words, it knows about fixing hopeless situations, and what’s more it will do it silently with no help from you. Like an enormous, weighted blanket it draws busy-ness out of your brain. Your mind becomes like treacle, still able to concentrate, but quiet. Breathing slows, as does heart rate. It’s tremendously powerful medicine.
How does stress affect the body? It speeds everything up. Vetiver slows it all back down.
There is nothing that slows the breath like frankincense does, it opens the airways allowing more air in and restoring elasticity to the tissues. If stress is exacerbating your asthma, or making you cough, then frankincense is the way to go.
Likewise, if you are facing a question of faith, frankincense is a way to hear your deity more clearly.
As a plant shaman, I regard essential oils as gifts from my plant allies. They are my teachers, my helpers and my friends. I hope that you will come to see them the same way over time. Like any ally, the longer we work with them, the more useful they become because of the backstory that exists between you. There is other stuff you learn about them that helps you to utilize them in different ways and they become good at seeing traps you are going to fall into before you do. That’s the trait of a good team mate, right?
But remember, they are tools. Nothing more, nothing less. If you feel depressed or anxious please also speak to a qualified healthcare professional so they can support you in your time of need. You have to be your own solution. Commit to putting in the work with the oils, using them regularly and thoughtfully. Their effect is cumulative. It will get stronger over time. Lasting effects will take weeks not a quick sniff here and there. But, just like any colleague will soon tire of picking up your pieces when you refuse to pull your weight, the same is true of the oils. They will only work for so long.
How does stress affect the body long term? The answer has to be that it gets worse and worse. Essential oils are great as a temporary self care measure, but real self care is talking to your creditors, maybe reducing hours at work or having difficult conversations with loved ones. And remember, for every conversation you need to have, there will be a plant ally ready to help you, the key to finding them is just to learn to listen to what they have to say.