25 Surprising Ways Stress Affects Your Health
What is stress?
Whether it's a short-term frustration like a traffic jam or a major life event like divorce or job loss, psychological stress can affect our bodies.
Stress can be highly personal, with one person's unpleasant experience another's exhilarating adventure. And a little bit of stress is thought to be good for memory and motivation. However, about 70% of doctor visits and 80% of serious illnesses may be exacerbated or linked to stress.
Here are 25 ways that stress can affect the body. The good news is that there is much you can do—exercise, meditation, and more—to reduce the impact of stress in your life.
Fight or flight
The adrenals then churn out hormones, such as cortisol, which raise blood pressure and blood sugar (among other things). This is dandy if you need to outrun a hungry lion, less so if the perceived threat is a looming layoff. And it can be harmful to health if sustained over time.
Scientists believe the hormone binds to receptors in the brain that control food intake. And if you already have a high body mass index, you may be even more susceptible.
The key is to know your triggers, and be ready when deadlines loom (or whenever stress is likely). That means, stock up on healthy snacks if you tend to hit the vending machine at work, or make sure you don't unhealthy treats on hand for those times when an attack of emotional eating is likely.
Part of that link is due to poor eating during stress, but the stress hormone cortisol may also increase the amount of fat tissue your body hangs onto and enlarge the size of fat cells. Higher levels of cortisol have been linked to more deep-abdominal fatyes, belly fat.
Luckily, exercise can help control stress and help keep belly fat under control.
The best thing to do is lead a heart-healthy lifestyle and focus on reducing stress in your life. Here are 12 steps you can take to help your heart by combatting stress.
While major stressful events can cause insomnia that passes once the stress is over, long-term exposure to chronic stress can also disrupt sleep and contribute to sleep disorders.
What to do? Focus on sleep hygiene (making your surroundings conducive to a good night's rest) and try yoga or another stress-busting activity during the day.
Stress also makes your muscles tense, which can make the pain of a migraine worse. Beyond treating the headache itself, focus on headache-proofing your home, diet, and lifestyle in general.
During acute stress, the hormone also interferes with neurotransmitters, the chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other. That can make it hard to think straight or retrieve memories.
While it's tough to limit stress in our hectic lives, some experts recommend trying meditation, among other solutions.
Stress and anxiety can also contribute to a disorder medically known as trichotillomania, in which people have a hard-to-resist urge to pull out the hair from their own scalp.
However, you can stop blaming your silver tresses on your demanding boss. There's little evidence that stress will turn your hair gray.
Stress may even affect the ability to get pregnant in the first place. One study found that women with the highest levels of a stress-related substance called alpha-amylase were about 12% less likely to get pregnant each cycle than those with the lowest concentrations.
Changing what you eat, exercising more, or adjusting medication can help to keep it under control.
One study of obese black women without diabetes found that those who produced more stress-related epinephrine when asked to recall stressful life events had higher fasting glucose and bigger blood sugar spikes than those with lower epinephrine, suggesting it might raise your risk for getting diabetes too.
In particular, irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, which is characterized by pain and bouts of constipation and diarrhea is thought to be fueled in part by stress. However, stomach ulcers, once thought to be caused by stress, are triggered by H. pylori bacteria, which can be treated with antibiotics.
It's not yet clear whether chronic stress can cause more permanent changes in your blood pressure, but techniques like mindfulness and meditation may help, according to Dr. Hagen. In addition, there are many natural ways to reduce blood pressure, including diet and exercise.
This damage may make dealing with future stresses even harder, but it can likely be reversed with effective stress-management techniques.
Stress can also trigger psoriasis to appear for the first time or make an existing case more severe. Many doctors are starting to incorporate stress-management techniques such as biofeedback and meditation into their treatment programs for the skin disease.
One recent study in Europe found that people who are prone to anxiety and negative thinking are more likely to develop back pain, while a U.S. study tied anger and mental distress to ongoing back pain.
Researchers believe this may be because low levels of stress hormones suggest strength and health, which are desirable traits to be passed on to offspring.
In another recent study, healthy adults who had experienced a stressful life event within the past year were four times as likely to suffer a stroke than their less-stressed counterparts.
One theory is that the increased risk is due to stress-related high blood pressure and/or narrowing of the arteries (known as atherosclerosis).
The good news? Exercising vigorously three times a week may be enough to counteract the effect.
Researchers believe stressed people's immune cells may be less sensitive to a hormone that turns off inflammation, which could offer a clue to why stress can be correlated with more serious diseases as well.
In one study, children who experienced severe stress such as the death of a loved one had a nearly two-fold increase in the risk of an asthma attack over the following two weeks compared to those not under stress.
Researchers aren't sure why, but stress may amplify the immune response to asthma triggers such as pollen, animal dander, or dust.
One solution is to ask your employer to offer stress-management training, which can address company-wide stressors like weak communication channels as well as focusing on stress busters for individuals.
"Stress clearly has an effect on productivity, and the costs of that for employers can be very high," Dr. Hagen points out.
Up to one-third of people treated for seizures at the hospital didn't respond to standard anti-seizure medication and doctors concluded that they had stress-induced symptoms.
Known as conversion disorder, some people can subconsciously express emotional trauma as physical symptoms, they say.
Sexual dysfunction can have medical causes, so it's important to talk to a doctor, but reducing and managing stress can often turn things around in the bedroom.