Okay, let’s see how smart (insightful) you are. The best way to increase your longevity is to a) lose weight, b) reduce stress, c) quit smoking, d) exercise regularly or e) consume fewer than two drinks of alcohol a day? The correct is B otherwise the title of this article would be called something else. Right? So even if you did not know the answer you could have guessed it correctly. The effects of stress on the body are broad and deep. Based on telomere shortening chronic stress will shorten your life by 10 years while smoking shortens it about 4.5 years, and being obese shorten telomere length 8 years. For more on telomeres read, Telomeres: A Key to Longevity.
Effects of Stress on the Body
About 70% the visits to a primary care doctor have something to do with stress. That’s how prevalent stress is and that’s how detrimental it is to our health. The effects of stress on your body are numerous and involve every organ system in your body. We’ve discussed that wellness is about maintaining energy and nothing probably zaps our energy more than stress. So we could say that wellness is an absent of stress. Now before we go further it’s important to recognize that stress comes in all shapes and sizes.
Types of Stress
Stress can be emotional, psychological, or physical. And, stress can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). Not all stress is bad. Stress can make us stronger and more resilient as long as we can manage it and adapt to it. And, we do need some stress to develop psychologically and emotionally. So be careful about trying to shelter your kids too much from stress and failure.
Many of the things that stressed us as teenagers now seem insignificant compared to stress that we encounter in our middle years. Breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend in high school pales to that of a messy divorce in one’s 40s. Or, getting cut from the basketball team in middle school seems minor compared to being fired at work when you are an adult with a family of four to feed.
Our perception of stress frequently changes as we become better capable of handling the stress in life that comes each of our ways. Each stress we conquer better prepares us for the next bigger one we may face. That brief presentation in high school that made you nervous and fret better prepared you better for that 45 minute presentation to 500 colleagues at a professional meeting.
Stress Effects on the Body
Three stress hormones are released when we encounter acute stress like that when we are confronted with physical danger. These are the release of epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and cortisol. They are released by our adrenal glands. These hormones change the physiology of the body. The body goes into survivor mode when faced with acute stress. This is also known as fight or flight response. Hans Selye was a Hungarian endocrinologist who provided the first scientific explanation for the biologic effects of stress.
Even when not confronted with physical harm the body responds the same to acute stress. Once the acute stress subsides the body returns to its normal functioning.
Health problems occur when stress becomes chronic or recurring, or when acute stress cannot be dissipated or defused.
What Effects Does Stress Have on the Body?
Below is a summary of the key effects of stress on the body.
- Stress leads to sleep disturbances.
- Stress raises anxiety and leads to depression.
- Acute stress constricts blood vessels, raises heart rate and blood pressure., increases breathing to deliver more oxygen to vital organs.
- Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and raise the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
- During stress the liver releases glucose for energy but prolonged or chronic stress leads to insulin resistance and increase risk of diabetes.
- Stress increases risk of heartburn and esophageal reflux. It does not cause peptic ulcers but can aggravate existing ulcer disease.
- Stress can cause either diarrhea or constipation.
- Muscles tighten up under stress contributing to neck pain, low back pain, and headache.
- Chronic stress can either lead to weight gain from increase fat accumulation (insulin and cortisol) or lead to weight loss from muscle atrophy (cortisol).
- Chronic stress weakens the immune system increasing risk of infection and cancer and hinders tissue healing.
- While acute stress in men leads to increase testosterone production chronic stress lowers it and decreases fertility and erectile function.
- In women stress can alter menstruation, reduces sexual desire, and aggravates the typical symptoms of menopause.
- Stress leads irritability and anger affecting interpersonal relationships.
- Stress affects focus and concentration and can lead to decrease motivation.
Stress Management 101
We cannot avoid all stress. But, we can anticipate some of it, prepare for some of it, and we can better learn to manage it. It’s important during stressful times to take the best care of yourself as possible. That means doing your best to eat well, getting some physical activity to dissipate stress, and the best night of sleep possible. And, it’s important to find some time to yourself. None of that is easy. But, the better you do that the better you will protect your body and mind from the ravages of stress. I tell my patients going through a challenging time to find time to pamper themselves especially the women (spa, massage, manicure, even shopping, etc). I use any number of words for the men other than “pamper” though. They look at you weird if you say “pamper”.
You may find one or more of the following helpful.
- Exercise. Execise is a great way to burn off some of the stress. It provides an outlet. Plus, it protects against the cardiovascular and physical effects of stress on the body such as the body composition changes that can occur with chronic stress.
- Relaxation techniques. Relaxation can mean deep breathing, alternating contracting and relaxing the muscles of the body, stretching exercises, and others.
- Tai chi
Anything you typically find enjoyable can lower stress. That’s one reason why having a hobby or some interest outside work and family is important. We can call such a hobby or interest an “escape”.
Don’t let the effects of stress on the body shorten your longevity and quality of life. Minimize the long term effects of stress on the body as best as possible. Identify when you are stressed, take extra special care of yourself during those times, and do what you can to manage it.