What happens to your body when you’re a stressed caregiver?

Woman having a headacheStatistics show the stress of care giving can result in chronic disease for the caregiver and take as many as 10 years off one’s life. In comparison to caregivers of people in all categories, caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients in particular rate their health more poorly, take worse care of themselves, and spend more money on their health care. Feeling more tired and depleted, they evaluate themselves as less healthy, engage in fewer health-promoting behaviors, and use more health services.

Given the demands on caregivers’ time and energy, they may neglect their own self-care by sleeping less, eating too much or too little, not exercising, or not managing their own health problems. Neglect of their own health may worsen pre-existing illnesses or increase vulnerabilities to new stress-related problems.

The Physiology of Stress

Walter Cannon described the fight or flight response in 1929.  Adrenaline is the fight-or-flight hormone: It causes cells, especially muscle cells, to speed up energy production so that the body will be ready to fight a foe or run away. It is needed for short blasts of stress.

  • Pupils dilate to sharpen vision.
  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase to accelerate the delivery of oxygen to fuel the muscles and critical organs.
  • Blood flow is diverted from non-critical areas such as the gastrointestinal tract to the critical areas such as the heart, skeletal muscles and liver.
  • Liver releases glucose and fatty acids into the bloodstream. Glucose is for immediate energy; fat is needed when the fight-or-flight response lasts longer than expected.
  • Bronchial tubes dilate to maximize the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Cortisol bolsters us in long-lasting stress situations. But when the body is dealing with chronic stress, the adrenals get “stuck” in the on position and the whole system goes into chronic “fight or flight.”

  • Glucose that is dumped into your bloodstream goes unused, so your body has to produce an enormous amount of insulin to handle it. Eventually, this may result in hypoglycemia or diabetes.
  • Fat that is dumped into your blood also goes unused, so it clogs your arteries, leading to cardiovascular disease.
  • If you drink caffeine, the stress hormone cortisol becomes elevated, which can set you up for countless health problems including: poor quality of sleep, impaired immunity and age-related deterioration.

Adrenal exhaustion–The adrenal glands produce or contribute to the production of about 150 hormones. When they are stressed, they become exhausted. Once the adrenal buffer is gone, you become a prime candidate for asthma, allergy, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune disorders, hypoglycemia

Alcohol, caffeine, sugar and salt put added stress on the adrenals.

Stimulate, such as caffeine increase the effects of your body’s own stimulating neurotransmitters: norepinephrine and dopamine, which are similar to adrenaline in their effects. Caffeine and these natural stimulants provide short-term energy, focus and even a lifted mood. But in the long-term, caffeine depletes your stores of norepinephrine and dopamine, leaving you more tired, sluggish and down than you were before the caffeine habit.

Psychological stress can impact cardiovascular function and lead to cardiovascular disease, and possible stroke/heart attack.

Stress and sleep

Adequate sleep repairs your body, sharpens your mind and stabilizes emotions. Lack of sleep triggers the body to increase production of cortisol, which makes it harder to fall asleep and stay in a deep sleep because on some level your body and brain think they need to stay alert for danger.

  • Loss of sleep as a result of caring for a loved one can lead to serious depression.
  • As little as five nights of poor sleep can significantly stress the heart.

Weight gain and insulin resistance

  • Increased cortisol production leads to weight gain. The adrenals increase gluconeogenesis, which provides the body with glucose from protein, rather than carbohydrates. This decreases serotonin and melatonin, which results in poor sleep and leads to food cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods in order to uplift mood, which releases more serotonin and insulin. This leads to more stress and insulin production to regulate glucose, which may lead to fat storage, weight gain and insulin resistance. It becomes a vicious cycle.
  • Insufficient sleep is also associated with lower levels of leptin, a hormone that alerts the brain that it has enough food, as well as higher levels of ghrelin, a biochemical that stimulates appetite. Consequently, poor sleep may result in food cravings.

Exercise

  1. Insufficient sleep may leave us too tired to burn off extra calories with exercise.
  2. When your body is stressed and prepared to fight or run it’s full of stress hormones. If you’re sedentary, those hormones will continue to circulate and cause damage to your body. Vigorous exercise, however, burns off those hormones. Exercise also releases the neurotransmitter serotonin and endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers.
  3. Doctors from Nottingham Trent University suggest the chemical phenylethylamine is released during exercise and could play a part in uplifting mood as a result of exercise. Phenylethylamine is a naturally produced chemical that has been linked to the regulation of physical energy, mood and attention.

Impact of food on mood and physiology

Hazards of caffeine

  1. Caffeine stresses the adrenal glands and can contribute to anxiety, insomnia, depression, irritability, anxiousness—not good for caregivers. In fact, studies show that those who drink the most coffee often suffer from chronic depression. It depletes the body of B1, biotin, inositol, vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and zinc. It increases thirst because it is dehydrating, over stimulates and weakens the kidneys, pancreas, liver, stomach, intestines, heart, and nervous system.
  2. Can increase production of cortisol, leading to stronger cravings for fat and carbohydrates. This increases blood glucose, release of insulin and fat stored in the abdomen.
  3. Increases dopamine levels, making you feel good until it wears off
  4. May interfere with restful sleep
  5. Try not to drink coffee after 2pm
  6. Simple carbohydrates increase insulin production.

People who are stressed often crave and overeat sugar and simple carbohydrates, like chips, cookies and white bread or pasta, because those foods provide a fast release of the feel-good chemical serotonin. But eating this way causes a blood-sugar crash a couple of hours later, leaving you tired and moody. The more of these foods that you eat the more you crave. Although these foods are high in calories, they contribute few nutrients and deplete the body of essential vitamins and minerals, raise triglycerides, and contribute to inflammation and excess weight.

  1. Lack of water/fiber can rob the body of nutrients because of problems with digestion and assimilation
  • HFCS and other artificial sweeteners can interfere with your natural production of neurotransmitters. Aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal) competes with tryptophan by blocking its conversion into serotonin. Artificial sweeteners contribute to numerous adverse symptoms, as compiled by the Food and Drug Administration and include everything from menstrual changes, weight gain, and headaches to severe depression, insomnia and anxiety attacks.

High fructose corn syrup (glucose and fructose) can lead to a decrease in leptin production leading your body into thinking it’s hungry so you eat more, especially processed foods. HFCS can lead to insulin resistance and higher levels of triglycerides, as well as obesity, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Bad habits, i.e. forgetting to eat, eating on the run, not eating breakfast all contribute to unstable blood sugar and adrenal exhaustion, which makes you grab foods that aren’t good for you, so you end up feeling irritable, moody, and even more stressed.


You get the picture? It’s important to take care of yourself, especially when you are taking care of someone else. I don’t want to overwhelm you with information or preach to you. Here’s a short checklist to help you stay healthy and balanced.

  • Eat a serving of high-quality protein with every meal and snack
  • Focus on complex carbohydrates (whole grains, veggies and fruits), and eliminate junk foods (refined carbs).
  • Enjoy unlimited amounts of fresh veggies.
  • Eat a good breakfast!
  • Eat 3 balanced meals and 1-2 snacks/day.
  • Magnesium, B complex, fish-oil, walnuts, flax seeds, dark leafy greens, and high quality all help reduce stress and uplift mood.
  • Meditate or find some quiet time for yourself
  • Exercise! At least take a short walk everyday.
  • Put on a funny YouTube video and laugh.
  • Use aromatherapy.
  • Do the best you can.

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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”–winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in self-help– in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

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