What is stress?

Functional medicine
Stress is a nonspecific term that refers to the internal experience of feeling overwhelmed or “stretched beyond one’s limits.” It is caused by a trigger or event that upsets and generates a response in an individual who feels stressed. Stress is universal. How we respond to and cope with stress depends on our physiology and perception of stress. Small amounts of stress, called ‘hormesis,’ can be considered ‘eustress’ – stress can have a positive physiological effect; for example, exercise makes your muscles stronger. However, individuals can also over-exercise, which could harm their health. A famous saying says, “the poison is in the dosage.”Chronic stress may lead to systemic inflammation, premature aging, cognitive decline, inflammatory bowel disease, metabolic disorders, diabetes, immune dysfunction, and psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Stressors come in various forms; stressors can be physical, psychological, or biochemical. Unfortunately, the body can not distinguish between the different stressors; for example, psychological stress can be as destructive to one’s health as physical stress. Here are some examples of various stressors. Psychological stressors:

  • Emotional abuse
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Divorce
  • Financial difficulties
  • Relationship stress
  • Isolation
  • Witnessing violence
  • Loss of a loved one

Physical stressors:

  • Extreme temperature changes
  • Car accident
  • Sports injuries
  • Trauma
  • Falls
  • Over-exercising
  • Physical abuse
  • Sleep deprivation

Biochemical stressor:

  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Drug use
  • Medication
  • Allergies
  • Food sensitivities
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Infection
  • Toxins
  • Nutrient deficiency
  • Thirst

What happens in your body during a stressful event?

How we respond to stress is physiologically complicated, and stress affects the whole system, including the endocrine, nervous, and immune systems. The physiological response to stress is prioritising the availability of blood to the limbs to increase energy, oxygen, and strength; the body decreases blood flow to metabolically expensive systems like the digestive, immune, and reproductive systems.
Chemical compounds are released via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to increase heart rate, blood pressure, cardiac output, and oxygen uptake increase to facilitate the fight or flight response. Blood glucose increase as an immediate energy source. Once the threat has passed, the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system brings the body back into a state of balance.Hormonal changes due to stress:

  • Catecholamines ↑
  • Corticosteroids ↑
  • Vasopressin ↑
  • Growth hormone ↑
  • Prolactin may ↑ or ↓
  • Gonadotropins ↓
  • Insulin ↓
  • TSH, T3, and T4 ↓

Physiological Changes due to stress.

  • Increase energy to maintain brain and muscle function
  • Increase focus and attention to a perceived threat
  • Cardiovascular output and respiration increased
  • Blood is redistributed to facilitate fight or flight.
  • The immune system is modulated.
  • Inhibition of reproductive function and sexual behaviour.
  • Apatite and feeding are reduced.

What effects can excessive amounts of stress have on the body?

An acute response to stress keeps you safe, for example, when running away from a dangerous situation. Chronic stress, on the other hand, will disrupt the organism’s physiology and may lead to:

  • Blood glucose dysregulation
  • Hypertension
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Obesity
  • Inflammatory disorders
  • Psychological disorders
  • PTSD
  • Cognitive decline
  • Chronic stress can also lead to the shrinkage of parts of the brain that can affect your memory, the same damage that excessive use of common anti-inflammatory drugs can do.

Obesity and stress

Prolonged activation of the HPA axis (chronic stress) may contribute to weight gain. Chronically elevated cortisol increases abdominal fat deposition, decreases leptin signalling and satiety, and increases ghrelin signals, appetite, and food intake.

General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)

Hans Selye developed the general adaptation syndrome (GAS) when he observed physiological changes due to different stressors.
The three stages of the stress response are still used today in describing stressful events. The alarm stage: “fight or flight.” (DHEA and cortisol levels increase).

  • Increased noradrenaline
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • High blood flow to the muscles
  • Decreased blood flow to the organs not needed in the movement
  • Increased blood clotting
  • Increased cellular metabolism
  • Increased muscle strength
  • Increased mental activity
  • Increased blood glucose

Resistance phase (Hight cortisol and decreased DHEA levels)

  • Poor concentration
  • Irritability
  • Frustration

Exhaustion phase (low cortisol and low DHEA levels)

  • Anxiety
  • Burnout
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced stress tolerance
  • Decreased immunity

Health Conditions associated with excessive amounts of stress

  • Angina
  • Asthma
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Common colds
  • Depression
  • Diabetes melitus (type 2)
  • Headache
  • Hypertension
  • Immune suppression
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Ulcers

Addressing stress: What can we do about it?
The first step is identifying primary stressors and underlying causes and contributors to stress. Coping with stress requires conscious decisions and actions, including optimal lifestyle and nutrition choices.

Stress management techniques.

  • Deep breathing
  • Exercise
  • Healthy diet
  • Healthy sleep routine
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Music therapy
  • Yoga
  • Social support
  • Time management

Food and nutrients may help balance the stress response.


  • Alpha lipoic acid
  • Amino acids
  • B vitamins
  • Calcium
  • Carotenoids
  • Folate
  • Magnesium
  • Omega 3 fatty acids
  • Selenium
  • Vitamin C, D, E
  • Zinc


  • Banana
  • Blueberries
  • Brazil nuts
  • Broccoli
  • Complex carbohydrates
  • Dark chocolate
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Flax seeds
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Oranges
  • Probiotics
  • Spinach
  • Tea
  • Turkey
  • Walnuts
  • Whole grains


  • Ashwagandha
  • Ginseng
  • Kava kava
  • Passionflower
  • Rhodiola
  • Ziziphus Spinosa

We all have a unique story and a set of circumstances that brought us to where we are in our health today. Your treatment plan should also be tailored to your specific needs; there is no one-size-fits-all when designing a health optimisation plan. In most people, the answer is more complex than a diet and some supplements; addressing the four health factors (environment, lifestyle, mindset and nutrition) is the only way to get actual results. To book your complimentary 15min discovery call, please click on the link.

Dr. Matt le Roux is a man of many talents: chiropractor, sports scientist and functional medicine practitioner. His science-based approach motivates him to explore the synergy between health and performance that changes the way you move, live, train, think, and eat.

Dr Matt le Roux

Chiropractor, Functional medicine practitioner

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