What happens during exposure to stress?
Your body activates the fight or flight response, more formally known as the sympathetic response. Following exposure to stress, this evolutionary mechanism interprets the stimulus as a threat, something that is putting you in danger. This was useful during times of a hunter-gatherer society when large predators hunted humans.
Epinephrine (adrenaline) is released into the blood stream from the adrenal glands and causes an array of rapid changes.
Heart rate increases to circulate blood through the body at a quicker pace, delivering oxygen to the many muscles working hard to fight off or flee the beast. The blood vessels constrict, causing the blood pressure to increase while the airways dilate to allow a greater amount of air to enter the lungs. The pupils become larger to allow more light in while the perception of pain is reduced.
While all of these changes sound extreme, they help us in the moment and are balanced by the parasympathetic response that counteracts all of these processes. The real danger is when the stress becomes chronic and the body has difficulty 'turning off'.
What other changes can stress cause?
In certain individuals, changes in the secretion of stomach acid and mucous protecting the stomach tissue from the acid may lead to erosions in the tissue over time, a condition known as a gastric ulcer. While some research shows stress to be a direct cause of ulcers, current research has also shown that the experience of psychological stress influences health risk behaviours. These behaviours in themselves place the individual at a higher risk of developing an ulcer and include smoking, lack of sleep, and use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
What are the symptoms of stomach ulcer?
- The most concerning sign is coughing or vomiting blood as it indicates that the erosion of the stomach wall is quite far along.
- Another sign could include dark stools as a result of blood that has been processed through the digestive tract and is now being excreted in the stool, more formally known as melena.
- Abdominal pain,
- Heartburn, or even
- Weight loss in extreme cases as the pain affects appetite.
Do stress ulcers go away?
The healing of a stomach ulcer is facilitated by the fact that the cells forming the stomach wall have a high turnover rate, one that is increased in those with ulcers. This makes sense because the cells in this environment are exposed to acids, large muscle movements as the food is churned, different spices, foods of various textures, etcetera. This means cells can 'wear out' quickly and need to be replaced. The larger danger occurs when the tissue is ulcerated for so long, that the cells begin to mutate, potentially placing you at a higher risk of developing stomach cancer.
However, if the tissue hasn't reached a state with mutations, then given enough time and with a reduction in stress, the tissue will eventually return to its pre-ulcerated state.
How do you treat stress ulcers?
Mindfulness could be part of a protocol to help heal the ulcerated tissue and improve symptoms such as bloating and abdominal pain. Women participating in an 8-week course where they practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) experienced a 26.4% reduction in their symptoms and when researchers followed-up after 3 months, these same women had now experienced a 38.2% reduction in symptoms. MBSR has also been shown to stabilize cortisol rhythms which fluctuate throughout a 24-hour period, otherwise known as the stress hormone.
Diet can play a large role as well with certain foods demonstrating ulcer-fighting properties, mostly in animal studies. S-methylmethionine is a compound that can be found in abundance in cabbage and has been shown to have anti-ulcerogenic properties. Some research has demonstrated an ability to accelerate the healing of ulcers, and in another study where conventional treatment failed, -86% of recruited patients found relief from pain within two weeks of starting to take cabbage juice.
While treating is important, prevention is key. What means of prevention are available to you?
Stop stressing! Easy right? No. A herculean statement with so many factors to consider, but some gentle help from various herbs may help you cope with stressors a little easier. One such plant to consider is Passion Flower (Passiflora incarnata), a plant with anxiolytic, hypnotic, and anti-spasmodic effects. In patients experiencing anxiety prior to undergoing a dental extraction, Passion Flower was as effective as midazolam, a common anti-anxiety pharmaceutical. 20% of those in the study who took midazolam reported amnesia while those taking Passioflora incarnata demonstrated no significant memory issues. In another study, the effects of passion flower were comparable to oxazepam in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder. So, reducing anxiety and the associated stress may help to reduce the formation of ulcers.