The Biological Cost of Stress

Dr Agnes Ryu

“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.” Hans Selye (1976)


Stress is an inevitable part of life. We all encounter stressful situations, from work deadlines to relationship issues to financial pressures. While short-term stress can be motivating and even energizing, chronic stress takes a significant biological toll on the body and mind.

As a specialist in fertility, menopausal care, and natural breast cancer treatment, I frequently see how destructive stress can be during pivotal times in a woman’s life. Through my work, I have witnessed how stress does not just manifest as a psychological state – it exacts a real biological toll. I hope to emphasize that there are significant physical costs to chronic stress that directly impact women’s health and wellbeing.

Allostatic load

This biological wear and tear from persistent stress is known as allostatic load.

When we experience stress, the body activates the fight-or-flight response, releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to provide the energy and focus needed to respond to the threat. Cortisol in particular helps regulate energy, immune function, and cognitive processes when stress is acute. However, when stress becomes chronic and cortisol levels remain elevated, it can disrupt almost all the body’s processes.

Price of High Cortisol

High cortisol over long periods suppresses the immune system, making us more susceptible to illnesses. It raises blood pressure and blood sugar levels, increasing risk for heart disease and diabetes. It promotes fat storage and weight gain around the abdomen. It causes gastrointestinal issues and headaches. Excess cortisol also shrinks the prefrontal cortex of the brain, impairing learning, memory, and decision-making.

Chronic stress essentially puts the body into overdrive, accelerating cellular ageing. Telomeres, the protective caps on DNA strands, shorten more quickly under sustained stress. Shorter telomeres are associated with higher risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other age-related diseases. Stress also promotes systemic inflammation, which is linked to numerous health problems.

The wear and tear from frequent or prolonged activation of the stress response takes a heavy toll across body systems.

The ability to summon inner peace

I encourage women to be mindful of stress and understand that it takes more than an emotional toll – it has biological consequences that affect their wellbeing in myriad ways. While occasional short-term stress is normal, chronic stress should not be ignored. Understanding the biological cost of persistent stress emphasizes the importance of regulating the stress response and limiting exposure to prolonged challenges whenever possible. Implementing stress management techniques and prioritizing self-care helps mitigate the toxic effects of high allostatic load from unrelenting demands on our mind and body.

When we are able to mindfully manage stress and nurture resilience, we tap into an incredible inner strength.

In my practice, acupuncture treatment is applied to relieve anxiety and agitation. It is excellent for balancing the nervous system. Depending on the condition and severity, I often combine the following techniques on my treatment:
–  Specific breathing techniques like box breathing, originally developed for the U.S. Navy Seals
–  Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy
–  Vagus Nerve Reset
–  Somatic release

I encourage my patients to adopt the above techniques in daily life to quiet the mind, relax the nervous system, and process emotions immediately. Adequate sleep, a nutrient-rich whole food diet, movement, nourishing social connection should be regarded as an antidote against the stress, offsetting the physiological strain and drain. Achieving a calm mind and body is truly a superpower, especially for women facing chronic stress during pivotal life stages. Rather than being controlled by the biological consequences of stress, we can rise above with transcendent techniques. With equanimity and grace, we can navigate life’s challenges and protect our health, unlocking our highest potential.


Agnes Ryu

Agnes Ryu

Dr. Ryu is a clinician and biochemist specializing in integrative medicine. Her clinical interests include fertility, hormones, metabolism, healthy ageing, menopause, and natural breast cancer care. As an integrative practitioner, Dr. Ryu aims to uncover the root causes of health issues and strives to empower patients with the knowledge and tools to take charge of their own health.

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