Most of us can imagine the effects of acute stress on our bodies. Conjuring up the image of a car swerving towards us in traffic we can get a quick idea of how stress hormones affect our bodies responses. We can imagine our pulse quickening, our blood pressure rising, our breathing becoming rapid, our pupils dilating and our muscles tensing in order to quickly respond. The effects of chronic stress are more difficult to envision. The triggers for chronic stress and how our bodies experience stress are unique to each of us. Yet the results and long-term manifestations are often the same. Stress often causes unwanted physical and emotional symptoms like irritability, nervousness, and feeling overwhelmed. Chronic stress also leads to the formation of unhealthy habits like frequent restless nights, reaching for comfort in fried foods, skipping meals, or skipping out on physical activity. Chronic stress has a large impact on our health and wellbeing from our perception of pain to our quality of life. With chronic stress, the level and duration is not as important as how well we can effectively identify the triggers and intervene to effectively manage it.
The relationship between chronic stress and disease is not entirely clear. While most experts agree that managing stress is essential to promote good health, stress is also a very personal experience and depends on the triggers as well as a person’s personality and social supports. We know that many diseases, such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, peptic ulcer disease, or heart disease can worsen with mental stress. We also know that suffering from physical illnesses can cause high levels of stress and that stress in turn can cause physical symptoms, such as headaches or fatigue. It is essential to recognize the role of stress in our health in order to develop stress management techniques and to seek out medical care when necessary.
Here are 7 ways stress can adversely affect our health…
1. Stress can lead to weight gain. Can chronic stress really make you fat? Stress is notoriously linked to weight gain and obesity and the reasons are both hormonal and emotional. The fight or flight response causes the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is likely responsible for those stress-related sugar cravings because the fuel our body needs to fight or flee are carbohydrates. The notorious hormone, cortisol, also promotes the storage of “visceral fat” or abdominal fat which has been linked to both diabetes and heart disease. The real reason stress may lead to weight gain, however, is the learned habit of finding stress release through comfort food. The release of cortisol sparks our initial carvings for sugary and starchy foods but the brain remembers the mood boosting effects long after and has us coming back for more comfort in food to mitigate future stress. Over time the repeated “reward-based stress eating” may briefly lessen stress levels but lead to weight gain and obesity. Obesity in and of itself is also a source of stress for many Americans. People who are obese have a than average stress level of 6.0, significantly higher than normal weight individuals.
2. Stress can keep you up at night. Have you ever lay awake in bed at night worrying over a deadline, unpaid bills, or fight with your loved one? You are certainly not alone. In the course of a month, 43% of adults in the U.S. miss a night’s sleeping laying awake and worrying about stress. Stress is a frequent cause of insomnia and stress and sleep are often linked in a vicious cycle. Laying in bed at night and missing out on valuable rest can lead to daytime irritably, fatigue or laziness and lack of concentration. While most people need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night to optimally function, the average American adult typically sleeps for only 6.7 hours a night. Younger generations are getting even less sleep, Gen-Xers report the fewest hours of sleep and Millennials report the poorest sleep quality often because they have too much to do and not enough time. All of these sleep deprived Americans are also more susceptible to daytime stressors. Adults who get less eight hours of sleep per night report higher levels of stress than their well-rested counterparts and half of all adults under high stress say that they are up at night because their minds are racing. Over time, chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to increased rates of obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
3. Chronic stress can lead to bad habits. Have you have been too stressed to go to the gym, prepare a healthy meal or just decided to skip dinner altogether? Stress itself is one of the major barriers to making healthy changes and a frequent driver of habits. After a stressful day at work or a long day with the kids, we tend to rely on habits. If we have established healthy habits like going to the gym and then making a salad after work, then that is the routine we will usually continue. But more often in times of high stress, we find rely on more convenient routines or seek comfort by relaxing in front of the TV with a carton of ice cream or unwinding with a glass of wine at happy hour. In the course of a month 38% of adults report coping with stress by overeating or eating unhealthy foods, and half of these adults report seeking comfort in food weekly or more. Adults under high stress are also four times as likely to skip exercise and are more likely to engage in sedentary activities to manage stress, such as going online or watching TV. Over time, these behaviors become dominant habits that are more and more difficult to break. In times of low stress it is important to eat healthy, work out and develop stress management techniques so that these are the habits you rely on in times of high stress.
4. Stress weakens your immune system. Can chronic stress make you catch a cold? Chronic stress has been shown to make us more susceptible infections. A 2004 meta-analysis of nearly 300 studies on stress and health, found that stress lasting from just few days to a few months decreased all aspects of immunity. The study also revealed that older or already ill people are even more prone to stress-related immune changes. The good news is that by effectively managing stress you can help keep your immune system functioning at its best, which may help to ward off infections.
5. Chronic stress can hurt. Can emotional stress actually cause you physical pain? Chronic stress is known to exacerbate and intensify chronic pain from arthritis, chronic low back pain and other conditions. Chronic stress can also diminish your ability to cope with pain. In studies of patents with chronic back pain, simply thinking about or talking about a stressful event, dramatically increased muscle tension in their low back. A study from the University of Montreal recently found that patients with chronic pain had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than healthy individuals and recommended stress management as a treatment for chronic pain.
6. Chronic stress may prematurely age you. Is the old saying that worrying gives you wrinkles actually true? A 2012 Finnish study recently suggested that high levels of psychological stress accelerate the rate of biological aging. Telomeres are the DNA complexes that cap the end of chromosomes in cells and are thought to serve as markers of a cell’s age. Telomeres naturally shorten over time but shortened telomeres are have been found in older people, smokers, obese individuals and caregivers under high stress. The recent Finnish study examined the telomere length in participants suffering from work exhaustion, compared to participants with no exhaustion, and found that those under high stress had statistically significantly shorter telomeres. While we do not know for certain if prolonged environmental stress, like work exhaustion, leads directly to accelerated aging, we do know that the unhealthy behaviors that result from stress can age us. Sleep deprivation is known to accelerate aging, while regular exercise is known to protect our aging brains. People under high stress are known to sleep poorly, eat less healthy, drink more, engage in more sedentary behaviors and skip exercise…all of which become visible over time.
7. Stress can break your heart. Stress-induced cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome, is an extreme example of the impact stress can have on our physical health. Symptoms are typically triggered by acute emotional or physical stress, such as the death a loved one, fear, anger or an acute illness. Most people go to the emergency department because they think they are having a heart attack and the initial symptoms, EGK, and biochemical findings mimic a heart attack. Although the exact mechanism is unknown, experts believe that the condition is caused by a surge of stress hormones that “stun” the heart, preventing the left ventricle from contracting normally, and cause intense chest pain mimicking a heart attack without any blocked arteries. The majority of people affected are women over age 50 and nearly all fully recover.
Stay tuned for how to De-Stress in 1 Minute, 5 Minutes, 1 Hour or 1 Month tomorrow…