The Link Between Stress and Physical Health: How Stress Affects Your Body

how stress affects your body

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In today's fast-paced world, stress has become a common part of life for many people. While occasional stress is normal and manageable, chronic stress can have a significant impact on your physical health.  Understanding the link between stress and physical health is crucial for taking proactive steps to maintain overall well-being. In this blog article, we'll explore how stress affects your body and discuss strategies for managing stress effectively.

The Physiology of Stress

the physiology of stress

When you encounter a stressful situation, your body's natural response is to initiate a swift response that activates a series of processes designed to keep us alive.  These survival instincts cause a release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones trigger the "fight or flight" response, preparing your body to deal with the perceived threat. Adrenaline boosts energy levels and increases heart rate, propelling the body into a state of heightened alertness. Concurrently, cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone, works to mobilize glucose reserves, ensuring that the body has a sufficient energy supply for a rapid response. This hormonal surge also diverts resources away from non-essential functions, like digestion and reproduction, to prioritize defense mechanisms.

While this response can be helpful in short-term situations, our bodies aren’t intended to be in a constant state of threat management.  This prolonged exposure to stress hormones can lead to health ramifications for the cardiovascular system, the immune system, the digestive system, the musculoskeletal system, and mental health. 

Effects on the Cardiovascular System

stress cardiovascular effects

One of the most significant impacts of chronic stress is on the cardiovascular system. Elevated levels of stress hormones can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. With about 48% of the American population estimated to have high blood pressure and 40% with high cholesterol, managing stress is essential for maintaining a healthy heart and reducing cardiovascular risks.

Impact on the Immune System 

stress weakens the immune system

Stress can also weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to infections and illnesses. When the body is put into stressful situations it prioritizes the perceived threat and long-term immune function is not on the top of that prioritization. The barrage of stress hormones, particularly cortisol, has a debilitating effect on the functionality and efficacy of immune cells. These hormones interfere with the body's lymphocytes, the white blood cells crucial for combating infections.  This reduces the body's resistance to viruses and bacteria. This compromised state not only increases the risk of coming down with a case of the flu or cold, but can also affect the duration and severity of existing illnesses.

The impact of stress extends to inflammation, a natural immune response. Under chronic stress, the body's inflammatory response can become dysregulated, potentially leading to a heightened state of inflammation. This chronic inflammatory state is a known risk factor for numerous health conditions, including autoimmune diseases, where the body's immune system mistakenly attacks its tissues.

Digestive System Challenges 

stress effects the digestive system

The link between stress and digestive health is well-established. Since stress prioritizes functions essential to survival, the stomach takes a back seat.  While the stomach is slowing down, we may experience a stomachache, heartburn, or indigestion.  At the same time, stress can speed up the large intestine’s function, causing us to experience irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and diarrhea.  When we experience chronic stress conditions like stomach ulcers can develop. Managing stress through relaxation techniques and a healthy diet can help alleviate digestive discomfort.

Musculoskeletal Issues

Persistent stress can contribute to muscle tension, stiffness, and pain.  You’ve likely already experienced knots in your shoulders or a stiffened posture when you become stressed. It can exacerbate conditions like tension headaches, migraines, and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder.  Being aware of changes in muscle tension when we become stressed and working to relax those specific muscles can help. Practicing relaxation exercises, stretching, and maintaining good posture can help reduce musculoskeletal discomfort associated with stress.

Mental Health Concerns

stress and mental health

In addition to its physical effects, chronic stress can take a toll on mental health. Experiencing high levels of stress can intensify symptoms of existing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.  Conversely, those dealing with mental health disorders may find themselves more susceptible to stress, as their condition may make it challenging to cope with daily pressures and stressful crises. The two-way street of mental health and stress makes it a complicated relationship. Seeking professional support, practicing mindfulness, and engaging in stress-reducing activities are vital for promoting mental well-being.

Strategies for Managing Stress

strategies for managing stress

Now that we've discussed how stress affects your body, let's explore some effective strategies for managing stress:

  1. Practice Relaxation Techniques: Deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation can help calm your mind and body.
  2. Stay Active: Regular exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood lifters. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. If you can use this exercise as a chance to get outside and get sunlight exposure, even better.
  3. Prioritize Sleep: Quality sleep is crucial for restoring your body and mind. Establish a relaxing bedtime routine and aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
  4. Healthy Nutrition: Eat a diet rich in lean proteins, healthy fats, and fiber. Choosing foods and beverages that helps to balance blood sugar can assist in stabilizing hormones and restoring your body to a state of balance. Avoid excessive caffeine, sugar, and processed foods.
  5. Set Boundaries: Learn to say no to tasks or commitments that add unnecessary stress to your life. Delegate responsibilities when possible.
  6. Seek Support: Talk to friends, family, or a mental health professional if you're feeling overwhelmed. Supportive relationships can provide comfort and perspective.

Final Thoughts on Relaxation

Stress is a natural part of life and in many cases it is unavoidable.  While the body's stress response is inherently designed to protect us, ensuring that it is activated only when truly necessary and resolved swiftly is key to maintaining both mental and physical health. However, an abundance of chronic stress can have detrimental effects on your physical and mental health. By understanding how stress affects the body and implementing steps to manage stress, when possible, we can improve our overall health. Remember to prioritize self-care, practice mindfulness, and seek help when needed. Your health and well-being are worth investing in.




Author: Dr. Colleen Gulick