How Stress Affects Your Body, From Your Brain to Your Digestive System

It’s one thing to feel occasional stress. But when you’re constantly under pressure and have no way to cope, your risk of developing serious illness climbs. Here’s what you need to know about the long-term effects of living a stressed-out life.

Chronic stress can increase your risk of stroke, high blood pressure, and heart disease, as well as depression and anxiety. Credit: iStock

If you’ve ever felt stressed out (and who hasn’t?), you already know that being under pressure can affect your body, either by causing a headache, muscle tightness, or flutters in your chest; making you feel down in the dumps; or leaving you ravenous for chocolate or robbed of all appetite.

But these stress symptoms are merely the signals of the deeper impact that chronic stress can have on every organ and system in your body, from your nervous and circulatory systems to your digestive and immune systems.

The Good News About Stress
Not all stress is bad, and the hormones that the body produces in response to stress aren’t, either. Their levels actually fluctuate throughout the day as you adapt to challenges such as waking up (yes, that’s an example of stress), getting stuck in traffic, or being surprised for your birthday.

It’s also possible to manage stress by doing small things like deep breathing, taking a walk, listening to a meditation app, or even grabbing your child’s fidget spinner to distract yourself from whatever’s stressing you out. Any of these strategies can help short-circuit the body’s fight-or-flight response, stopping the flood of stress hormones from revving up your blood pressure and heart rate.

Even Short-Term Stress Can Affect Your Body — Especially Your Heart
When you’re stressed, your heart rate goes up and so does your blood pressure. Most people can handle these kinds of physiological changes in stride. “Cortisol is released when you feel stressed, but the level of this hormone should go back down when the stressful event is over,” says Jennifer Haythe, MD, a cardiologist and codirector of the Center for Women’s Cardiovascular Health at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City.

But even short-term stress can have a profound impact on your heart if it’s bad enough. The condition cardiomyopathy, also known as broken-heart syndrome, is a weakening of the heart’s left ventricle (its main pumping chamber) that usually results from severe emotional or physical stress. (1)

Although the condition is in general rare, 90 percent of cases are in women.

“Cardiomyopathy can occur in very stressful situations, such as after a huge fight, the death of a child, or other major triggers,” Dr. Haythe says. “Patients come into the emergency room with severe chest pain and other symptoms of what we call acute heart failure syndrome, though their coronary arteries are clear. They can be very sick, but with treatment, most of the time, people recover.”

Should I Get a Stress Test?
A stress test doesn’t measure the stress in your life, but it does measure the stress on your heart, or rather how hard your heart is working and what it looks like when you’re walking very fast on a steep incline on a treadmill. (2) “People usually get a stress test when they have multiple risk factors for heart disease, or if they’ve been having certain symptoms like chest pain or palpitations,” says Haythe.

“Basically, we want to see what happens to the heart when there is a greater demand for oxygen: when the blood pressure and blood flow increase. That’s when you can see if there might be an obstruction that is blocking blood flow in the arteries that needs treatment,” she explains.

Why Long-Term Stress Is So Bad for Your Body Systems
Left unchecked, severe stress — the kind that continues for months or years — is more apt to lead to serious illness than short-term stressors do.

“The stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and epinephrine affect most areas of the body, interfering with sleep and increasing the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, and heart disease, as well as causing depression and anxiety,” says Alka Gupta, MD, codirector of the Integrative Health and Wellbeing program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill-Cornell Medical Center in New York City. Here are a few key ways chronic stress can impact the body:

Stress causes inflammation. Studies have shown that chronic stress is linked to increased inflammation in the body. (3) “One of the proposed actions of stress is that it triggers inflammation in the body, which is thought to underlie many diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis, and even pain,” says Dr. Gupta.

One possible culprit: Chronic stress seems to be linked to an increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines, a type of immune cell that is typically part of the body’s defense system when you have an infection. (4)

“People with autoimmune conditions, where the immune system attacks the body itself, tend to have higher levels of these cytokines,” says Michelle Dossett, MD, PhD, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a staff physician at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The good news is that stress management techniques such as meditation have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, lowering cytokines in the body.

Stress affects your digestive tract. “The gastrointestinal tract is filled with nerve endings and immune cells, all of which are affected by stress hormones,” says Dr. Dossett. As a result, stress can cause acid reflux as well as exacerbate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Not to mention create butterflies in your stomach.

Stress messes with your immune system. A number of studies shows that stress lowers immunity, which may be why you’re likely to come down with a cold after a crunch time at school or work — right on the first day of your vacation. (5) “Patients with autoimmune disorders often say they get flare-ups during or after stressful events, or tell me that their condition began after a particularly stressful event,” says Dossett.

Stress can muddle your brain. “Brain scans of people with post-traumatic stress disorder show more activity in the amygdala, a brain region associated with fear and emotion,” says Haythe. But even everyday kinds of stress can affect how the brain processes information.

“We see actual structural, functional, and connectivity-related brain changes in people who are under chronic stress,” adds Gupta. All of these can affect cognition and attention, which is why you may find it hard to focus or learn new things when you are stressed. (6)

Stress can make you feel crummy all over. Stress makes us more sensitive to pain, and it can also cause pain due to muscular tension. (7) “People under stress also tend to perceive pain differently,” says Gupta.

They’re also less apt to sleep well, which doesn’t help matters. “Sleep is so important in terms of helping to prevent every disease,” adds Haythe. “It helps reboot the immune system and prevents depression, irritability, and exhaustion.”

Is It Possible to Get Cancer From Stress or to Die From It?
While it’s tough to link stress directly to a specific disease, “we know that stress does contribute to serious illness,” says Dossett. “Forty percent of cancers are preventable with changes in lifestyle. Since stress makes you more likely to smoke, drink excessively, and eat in ways that cause obesity, it’s fair to say that there is a link between stress and disease,” she says.

Maybe it’s no accident that most heart attacks occur on Monday — the most stressful day of the week.

Written by Paula Darrow and and Medically Reviewed by Justin Laube, MD for Everyday Health,
~ September 6, 2018

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