Stress – What Happens in Our Body and How Do We Manage It?

Author: Angelique Bone   Date Posted:4 September 2018 

Stress is a common occurrence, with our bodies constantly adapting to stressors in everyday life. However, when the stress lasts for a longer period of time and our bodies struggle to regain balance, it can become a problem which, if not resolved, poses a risk to our health. What happens in our body when we get stressed? Are there things we can do to help manage the stress? Let’s find out!


When we get Stressed

It is important to note that not everyone experiences stress the same way and that what one person may find stressful, is not stressful at all to another. When a stress is encountered, the body will start to release the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline. Our heart rate picks up and more oxygen is diverted to the brain, lungs and muscles and our blood sugar levels rise so that more energy can become available if we need it. Essentially, our body diverts it’s energy to the functions that are most important for dealing with the stress, like running or fighting off a threat. Under normal circumstances, either the stress will pass and the body can return to it’s normal, balanced state, or the body will find a new state of balance if required (for example where the stress is the result of a more permanent change, such as a big move, relationship change, etc.). In both cases, the body is able to adapt and it can do this many times throughout our lifetime.

Imagine now, that this process continues on for a long period of time and the body remains in this reactive state. This is when stress can become harmful and disrupt the body’s normal function and our health.


Stress and The Brain

As part of our stress coping mechanism, our brain seems to use more of the neurotransmitter Serotonin, which also plays a vital part in mood and sleep. If the stress continues for too long, the brain may not be able to keep up with serotonin production due to this increased demand, and this is when chronic stress can start to affect mood.



Why Do I Crave Carbs When I’m Stressed

As I mentioned above, stress causes our brain to use more serotonin. In order to make serotonin, our brain needs the amino acid Tryptophan. This can be found in protein foods, but it tends to compete for absorption with some of the larger amino acids, so not very much of the tryptophan from protein gets to cross over into the brain. When we eat carbs, the insulin that gets released slows down the absorption of the larger amino acids, giving the tryptophan a chance to cross over into the brain, where it can be converted to serotonin. More available serotonin can lead to a better stress coping mechanism, potentially explaining why we tend to crave carbs and “comfort foods” when we’re stressed.


What Can Help My Body Cope with Stress

There are nutrients, herbs and relaxation methods which can help our bodies cope with the effects of stress. These include:

Yoga: Yoga may help to lower blood levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline, as well as increasing our body’s tolerance for stress.

Deep Breathing: A fairly recent study found that participating in regular deep breathing exercises over ten weeks reduced the heart rate and salivary cortisol levels of students. 1

Vitamin C: Vitamin C is a natural adrenal tonic and it can help to lower cortisol levels. It has also been found to be helpful in reducing stress induced inflammatory markers, so keep up those Vitamin C levels in times of stress.

Vitamin B5: This vitamin is often used in combination with the other B-vitamins during stress. Vitamin B5 is required for healthy adrenal function and for the production of steroid hormones like cortisol, so supplementing with B-vitamins can help cater to the increased demand for this vitamin during stress, as well as improve the body’s stress response.

Siberian Ginseng: This herb has been used traditionally to help improve the body’s adaptation to stress. Some studies done using Siberian Ginseng seem to support its traditional use.

Withania: Withania is also an adaptogen and may help to reduce the negative effects that stress has on the body, including reducing cortisol levels as well as managing the body’s stress response.


Stress is a natural part of life, but if it gets out of control or carries on for too long it can affect your health and needs to be addressed. Luckily, with the right nutrition and some stress management techniques, we can help our bodies cope better with the demands of life.

If you are struggling with chronic stress and need a little bit of a helping hand, please speak to your healthcare practitioner. If you are on any medications, please speak to your healthcare practitioner before starting on any new supplements.


1. Perciavalle, V. et al. 2017, “The Role of Deep Breathing on Stress”, Neurological Sciences, Vol. 38, no. 3, pp. 451-458.

Written by Angelique Bone

Angelique (BHSc Naturopathy) is a qualified naturopath with a passion for herbal medicine and helping other people feel the best that they can. She believes that balance and moderation is important in maintaining good health.

Angelique enjoys reading, spending time with her family and baking goodies with her two young boys.

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