Stress affects people in different ways. Many people don’t realize that muscle pain, headaches or weight gain may be linked to pressure at work, school or family strain.
A study by Sheldon Cohen, PhD, a psychology professor and stress researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, found that stress plays a role in human disease. Cohen found that stress either triggered or worsened symptoms of depression and cardiovascular disease and sped up the advancement of HIV/AIDS. In particular, he found that chronic stress (daily stress over a prolonged time) increases the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.
It is unclear exactly how stress contributes to disease, but Cohen has two theories: first, people under stress may adopt poor lifestyle habits, such as overeating or using cigarettes, drugs or alcohol to “cope.” Such choices can lead to obesity and other addictions, which contribute to disease. Second, as mentioned, stress triggers the body to release different hormones into the bloodstream to regulate the immune system and other biological functions. When stress continues for weeks or months without relief, such hormones can negatively affect immune system function, making the body more vulnerable to disease.
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms below and can’t quite figure out why, consider taking a second to reflect on your stress levels; recognizing and learning how to manage stress could be the key to relief. Additionally, if symptoms worsen, make sure to contact a physician for guidance.
Constant stress can impair the function of the adrenal glands (small glands located on top of the kidneys). The adrenal glands secrete various hormones, including stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Prolonged periods of stress can overstimulate the adrenal glands, making them unable to produce sufficient hormones to meet the body’s needs. This condition, known as adrenal fatigue, can lead to a variety of symptoms, including extreme fatigue, irritability, impaired immune function and difficulty concentrating.
Managing stress can help prevent adrenal fatigue from occurring, or provide relief for an individual suffering from the syndrome. However, while adrenal fatigue can cause the body to feel exhausted, it is recommended to avoid stimulants such as caffeine. Stimulants cause the adrenal glands to work harder, compounding symptoms.
Stress may increase susceptibility to disease in other ways as well. A study at Ohio State University found that stress can have a harmful effect on the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, commonly called the gut. The gut is naturally home to hundreds of bacteria species. Some bacterial gut is beneficial, such as probiotics, which aid digestion and keep the intestinal tract healthy. Other bacteria, like Clostridium, can cause unpleasant symptoms that cause digestive discomfort.
Stress may negatively affect gut bacteria. In an animal study published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity in 2011, researchers found that increased stress levels resulted in a decrease of healthy bacteria, and an increase of harmful bacteria. When healthy bacteria decrease and harmful bacteria flourish, overall health suffers. In particular, the immune and digestive systems may be weakened.
Not only can stress affect the internal organs and biological systems, it can also be harmful to oral and dental health, including the mouth, teeth and gums.
Canker sores: Canker sores are small, painful ulcers inside the mouth that look like small white bumps. Medical professionals are not sure what causes canker sores, but suspect they are linked to a compromised immune system, bacteria or viruses, and are inflamed by stress, anxiety or allergies. Canker sores are not contagious and usually disappear within two weeks. To lessen inflammation of a canker sore, avoid spicy and acidic foods, such as peppers and tomatoes. Learning stress management techniques may also help decrease incidence of canker sores.
Cold sores: Also known as “fever blisters,” cold sores are caused by the herpes virus and are contagious. They typically appear on or around the lips. Stress and anxiety can trigger an outbreak of cold sores, which typically last 7–10 days. Natural remedies for cold sores include lysine (an essential amino acid found in foods such as red meat, fish, eggs, dairy and wheat germ), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and vitamin C. For individuals looking to avoid cold sores, daily supplementation with a low dosage of lysine may help prevent an outbreak. Once an outbreak has flared, a higher dose can help treat symptoms.
Teeth: Clenching and grinding the teeth is a sign of stress, and can happen subconsciously during the day or at night. One painful consequence of teeth grinding is an increased risk of developing inflammation of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), the joint located in front of both ears where the skull connects with the lower jaw. This joint allows you to talk, chew and yawn. Inflammation of this joint causes pain that can interfere with movement. A dentist can prescribe a night guard to protect the teeth and reduce the grinding movement. In addition, pay attention to stressful situations that may cause you to clench your teeth during the day. Make a conscious effort to keep your jaw relaxed during the day.
The most compelling link between stress and disease is seen with major or clinical depression, a serious medical illness that affects how an individual feels, thinks and acts. While everyone experiences periodic bouts of sadness, individuals suffering from major depression experience extended periods of sad and hopeless feelings that affect their ability to function normally. Stress can contribute to the onset of depression, as well as trigger a “relapse” in people who have recovered from it. Cohen notes that social stressors—divorce, death of a loved one, marital difficulties—particularly contribute to depression.
As mentioned, chronic stress results in prolonged elevated levels of stress hormones. Elevated levels of stress hormone cortisol can reduce the amount of certain neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain. Such neurotransmitters include serotonin, which contributes to feelings of well being and happiness; and dopamine, which plays a role in experiencing pleasure. Insufficient supplies of such neurotransmitters can contribute to depression.
It may also be “in your genes.” According to research, genetics can play a role in determining whether a stressful situation leads to developing depression. In Science, a 2003 study noted that people with a certain genetic variant are more likely to become depressed in stressful situations. People lacking the genetic variant may experience a similar stressful situation without developing depression.
The good news from the study, however, is that having a biological predisposition to depression is not a guarantee that an individual will develop depression at any given point in life. Again, learning to manage the inevitable events in life that can cause stress is key.
Stress and anxiety take a toll on your heart and are closely linked to heart disease. Chronic stress is associated with a variety of heart conditions, including high blood pressure, stroke and coronary heart disease (a narrowing of the blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart). Such diseases are a serious concern—coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.
Job-related stress can be particularly damaging. The Whitehall Study, conducted in Great Britain in two phases (1967–1977 and 1985–present), found that workers with the least control over their work had higher levels of stress, which correlated closely with higher rates of heart disease.
Why does stress put the heart at risk? Chronic stress can reduce blood flow to the heart, which reduces the amount of oxygen the heart receives. Since the heart needs oxygen to function, this can increase the risk of heart attack. Stress can also promote irregular heartbeat and increased likelihood of blood clotting, both of which contribute to developing cardiovascular problems. Chronic stress can damage blood vessel linings, making them more susceptible to atherosclerosis, in which the blood vessels harden and further restrict blood flow. Help keep your heart pumping properly by learning techniques to deal with stress.
Learning how to manage and cope with stress is essential when it comes to leading a healthy, fulfilling life. Make sure to take the time to learn which methods work best for you. In the meantime, check out our article The Key to Natural Stress Management for some helpful tips and tricks.