Stress and Your Body

Reviewed Jul 18, 2017

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Summary

  • The stress response activates changes throughout the body.
  • A prolonged stress response can alter or impair body systems in ways that increase risk of health problems.

Early humans relied on the body’s “flight or fight” stress response to survive. This automatic response sets in motion body changes to help protect us from harm. Today, a multitude of daily pressures can set off the stress response. Although some is helpful, ongoing stress causes the response to stay “turned on,” which puts your health at risk.

Your body’s normal stress response

When the brain senses a threat to your well-being, a surge of hormones and brain signals are released throughout the body. Adrenaline makes your heart beat faster and prepares your body to act without delay. Cortisol, the major stress hormone, boosts energy for your brain, heart and muscles by increasing blood sugar levels. It also slows down digestion, the immune system, and other body systems that you don’t need in a crisis. The stress response alters feeling, judgment, mood and memory so that you can act quickly. Once the stressor is gone, stress hormones return to normal. This is called the relaxation response.

Too much cortisol for too long

The stress response is designed to handle short-term stress. If your body’s stress response is active for a long time, cortisol and other stress hormones do not return to normal levels. Many experts believe that this prolonged response can alter or harm body systems in ways that speed up aging and increase the chance of health problems.

For instance, cortisol’s suppressing action on the immune system likely explains why people under chronic stress are prone to more frequent and severe viruses, like the common cold or flu. The flu vaccine also does not work as well in people under chronic stress.

The link between cortisol and inflammation in the body is also a topic of research interest. Some experts think that prolonged stress makes immune cells less sensitive to cortisol, enabling inflammation to get out of control. Chronic inflammation plays a role in many common but serious diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and autoimmune disease.

Stress-related health risks

We don’t yet know exactly how and to what degree a prolonged stress response might affect specific health risks. But research has revealed a relationship between mental stress and many health problems, including:

  • Heart disease. Chronic stress can worsen high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are major risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Studies also suggest that stress can trigger spasms in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Such spasms can block blood flow to part of the heart, leading to chest pain and possibly heart attack.
  • Digestive problems. Ongoing stress can increase stomach acid and worsen stomach ulcer symptoms. Stress may also make it harder for ulcers to heal. Stress can worsen symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease. It can trigger symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Asthma. Stress commonly triggers attacks in some people with asthma.
  • Anxiety or depression. Stress can trigger or worsen anxiety or depression.
  • Diabetes. Cortisol can raise blood sugar levels, possibly increasing type 2 diabetes risk.
  • Obesity. Eating patterns often change in times of stress. Overeating due to stress can lead to weight gain. Some evidence also suggests a biologic component to stress-related weight gain.
  • Memory problems. Memory problems and forgetfulness can be warning signs of too much stress. One study also found that repeated stress in middle age increases the risk of dementia in old age.
  • Fertility. For men, stress can lower sperm production and make it hard to have an erection. For women, physical stress can stop ovulation. The effects of emotional stress on fertility are not clear. Feeling stressed also can decrease desire for sex.
  • Skin problems. Stress can make the skin more sensitive and reactive, worsening psoriasis, rosacea and acne flare-ups. 

Moreover, stress can lead to habits that increase risk of disease, as well as undermine your willpower to make lifestyle changes needed to improve health.

Resources

American Psychological Association
(800) 374-2721 or (202) 336-5500
www.apa.org

National Institute of Mental Health
(866) 615-6464 or (301) 443-4513
www.nimh.nih.gov

Mental Health America
(800) 969-6642 or (703) 684-7722
www.mentalhealthamerica.net

American Institute of Stress
(914) 963-1200
www.stress.org

Stress Management: Approaches for Preventing & Reducing Stress. Harvard Health Publications, 2011.

By Christine Martin
Source: National Institute of Mental Health; American Psychological Association; American Diabetes Association; American Academy of Dermatology; Mental Health America; National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions by Esther Sternberg, MD. W.H. Freeman & Company, 2000; Stress Management: Approaches for Preventing & Reducing Stress. Harvard Health Publications, 2011; Inflammation and Psychiatric Disorders: Exploring the pathophysiology of major psychiatric and neurological disorders. CB Nemeroff & RS Duman, Ed. Psychiatric Annals, Vol 45(5), 2015.
Reviewed by Lily Awad, MD, Associate Medical Director, Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership

Summary

  • The stress response activates changes throughout the body.
  • A prolonged stress response can alter or impair body systems in ways that increase risk of health problems.

Early humans relied on the body’s “flight or fight” stress response to survive. This automatic response sets in motion body changes to help protect us from harm. Today, a multitude of daily pressures can set off the stress response. Although some is helpful, ongoing stress causes the response to stay “turned on,” which puts your health at risk.

Your body’s normal stress response

When the brain senses a threat to your well-being, a surge of hormones and brain signals are released throughout the body. Adrenaline makes your heart beat faster and prepares your body to act without delay. Cortisol, the major stress hormone, boosts energy for your brain, heart and muscles by increasing blood sugar levels. It also slows down digestion, the immune system, and other body systems that you don’t need in a crisis. The stress response alters feeling, judgment, mood and memory so that you can act quickly. Once the stressor is gone, stress hormones return to normal. This is called the relaxation response.

Too much cortisol for too long

The stress response is designed to handle short-term stress. If your body’s stress response is active for a long time, cortisol and other stress hormones do not return to normal levels. Many experts believe that this prolonged response can alter or harm body systems in ways that speed up aging and increase the chance of health problems.

For instance, cortisol’s suppressing action on the immune system likely explains why people under chronic stress are prone to more frequent and severe viruses, like the common cold or flu. The flu vaccine also does not work as well in people under chronic stress.

The link between cortisol and inflammation in the body is also a topic of research interest. Some experts think that prolonged stress makes immune cells less sensitive to cortisol, enabling inflammation to get out of control. Chronic inflammation plays a role in many common but serious diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and autoimmune disease.

Stress-related health risks

We don’t yet know exactly how and to what degree a prolonged stress response might affect specific health risks. But research has revealed a relationship between mental stress and many health problems, including:

  • Heart disease. Chronic stress can worsen high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are major risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Studies also suggest that stress can trigger spasms in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Such spasms can block blood flow to part of the heart, leading to chest pain and possibly heart attack.
  • Digestive problems. Ongoing stress can increase stomach acid and worsen stomach ulcer symptoms. Stress may also make it harder for ulcers to heal. Stress can worsen symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease. It can trigger symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Asthma. Stress commonly triggers attacks in some people with asthma.
  • Anxiety or depression. Stress can trigger or worsen anxiety or depression.
  • Diabetes. Cortisol can raise blood sugar levels, possibly increasing type 2 diabetes risk.
  • Obesity. Eating patterns often change in times of stress. Overeating due to stress can lead to weight gain. Some evidence also suggests a biologic component to stress-related weight gain.
  • Memory problems. Memory problems and forgetfulness can be warning signs of too much stress. One study also found that repeated stress in middle age increases the risk of dementia in old age.
  • Fertility. For men, stress can lower sperm production and make it hard to have an erection. For women, physical stress can stop ovulation. The effects of emotional stress on fertility are not clear. Feeling stressed also can decrease desire for sex.
  • Skin problems. Stress can make the skin more sensitive and reactive, worsening psoriasis, rosacea and acne flare-ups. 

Moreover, stress can lead to habits that increase risk of disease, as well as undermine your willpower to make lifestyle changes needed to improve health.

Resources

American Psychological Association
(800) 374-2721 or (202) 336-5500
www.apa.org

National Institute of Mental Health
(866) 615-6464 or (301) 443-4513
www.nimh.nih.gov

Mental Health America
(800) 969-6642 or (703) 684-7722
www.mentalhealthamerica.net

American Institute of Stress
(914) 963-1200
www.stress.org

Stress Management: Approaches for Preventing & Reducing Stress. Harvard Health Publications, 2011.

By Christine Martin
Source: National Institute of Mental Health; American Psychological Association; American Diabetes Association; American Academy of Dermatology; Mental Health America; National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions by Esther Sternberg, MD. W.H. Freeman & Company, 2000; Stress Management: Approaches for Preventing & Reducing Stress. Harvard Health Publications, 2011; Inflammation and Psychiatric Disorders: Exploring the pathophysiology of major psychiatric and neurological disorders. CB Nemeroff & RS Duman, Ed. Psychiatric Annals, Vol 45(5), 2015.
Reviewed by Lily Awad, MD, Associate Medical Director, Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership

Summary

  • The stress response activates changes throughout the body.
  • A prolonged stress response can alter or impair body systems in ways that increase risk of health problems.

Early humans relied on the body’s “flight or fight” stress response to survive. This automatic response sets in motion body changes to help protect us from harm. Today, a multitude of daily pressures can set off the stress response. Although some is helpful, ongoing stress causes the response to stay “turned on,” which puts your health at risk.

Your body’s normal stress response

When the brain senses a threat to your well-being, a surge of hormones and brain signals are released throughout the body. Adrenaline makes your heart beat faster and prepares your body to act without delay. Cortisol, the major stress hormone, boosts energy for your brain, heart and muscles by increasing blood sugar levels. It also slows down digestion, the immune system, and other body systems that you don’t need in a crisis. The stress response alters feeling, judgment, mood and memory so that you can act quickly. Once the stressor is gone, stress hormones return to normal. This is called the relaxation response.

Too much cortisol for too long

The stress response is designed to handle short-term stress. If your body’s stress response is active for a long time, cortisol and other stress hormones do not return to normal levels. Many experts believe that this prolonged response can alter or harm body systems in ways that speed up aging and increase the chance of health problems.

For instance, cortisol’s suppressing action on the immune system likely explains why people under chronic stress are prone to more frequent and severe viruses, like the common cold or flu. The flu vaccine also does not work as well in people under chronic stress.

The link between cortisol and inflammation in the body is also a topic of research interest. Some experts think that prolonged stress makes immune cells less sensitive to cortisol, enabling inflammation to get out of control. Chronic inflammation plays a role in many common but serious diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and autoimmune disease.

Stress-related health risks

We don’t yet know exactly how and to what degree a prolonged stress response might affect specific health risks. But research has revealed a relationship between mental stress and many health problems, including:

  • Heart disease. Chronic stress can worsen high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are major risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Studies also suggest that stress can trigger spasms in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Such spasms can block blood flow to part of the heart, leading to chest pain and possibly heart attack.
  • Digestive problems. Ongoing stress can increase stomach acid and worsen stomach ulcer symptoms. Stress may also make it harder for ulcers to heal. Stress can worsen symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease. It can trigger symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Asthma. Stress commonly triggers attacks in some people with asthma.
  • Anxiety or depression. Stress can trigger or worsen anxiety or depression.
  • Diabetes. Cortisol can raise blood sugar levels, possibly increasing type 2 diabetes risk.
  • Obesity. Eating patterns often change in times of stress. Overeating due to stress can lead to weight gain. Some evidence also suggests a biologic component to stress-related weight gain.
  • Memory problems. Memory problems and forgetfulness can be warning signs of too much stress. One study also found that repeated stress in middle age increases the risk of dementia in old age.
  • Fertility. For men, stress can lower sperm production and make it hard to have an erection. For women, physical stress can stop ovulation. The effects of emotional stress on fertility are not clear. Feeling stressed also can decrease desire for sex.
  • Skin problems. Stress can make the skin more sensitive and reactive, worsening psoriasis, rosacea and acne flare-ups. 

Moreover, stress can lead to habits that increase risk of disease, as well as undermine your willpower to make lifestyle changes needed to improve health.

Resources

American Psychological Association
(800) 374-2721 or (202) 336-5500
www.apa.org

National Institute of Mental Health
(866) 615-6464 or (301) 443-4513
www.nimh.nih.gov

Mental Health America
(800) 969-6642 or (703) 684-7722
www.mentalhealthamerica.net

American Institute of Stress
(914) 963-1200
www.stress.org

Stress Management: Approaches for Preventing & Reducing Stress. Harvard Health Publications, 2011.

By Christine Martin
Source: National Institute of Mental Health; American Psychological Association; American Diabetes Association; American Academy of Dermatology; Mental Health America; National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions by Esther Sternberg, MD. W.H. Freeman & Company, 2000; Stress Management: Approaches for Preventing & Reducing Stress. Harvard Health Publications, 2011; Inflammation and Psychiatric Disorders: Exploring the pathophysiology of major psychiatric and neurological disorders. CB Nemeroff & RS Duman, Ed. Psychiatric Annals, Vol 45(5), 2015.
Reviewed by Lily Awad, MD, Associate Medical Director, Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership

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