by Dr. Will Cole
Imagine you were a visitor to our culture from another world. One of the first things you might notice is the ubiquity of chronic stress. You might well believe, from even a cursory observation of our busy, modern lives, that being stressed, anxious, depressed, irritable, addicted to caffeine, and constantly craving salty or sugary foods was normal human behavior. But just because something is common doesn’t make it normal.
In reality, stress is dangerous, impacting not only the health of society but the health of your body and mind as well. In fact, a recent Harvard and Stanford study suggests that work-related stress is as detrimental to your health as secondhand smoke. Let’s take a look at nine ways stress can impact your body, according to research – not to stress you out further, but to give you nine critical reasons to finally take back your life by managing your stress.
1. Your brain on stress
Stress triggers a chain reaction in your brain, as your hypothalamus sends orders to your adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline. One study published in the medical journal Molecular Psychiatry found that chronic stress can actually cause long-term changes in the structure and function of the brain that can contribute to mental health issues. Other research has shown an association between chronic stress and increased risk of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and even dementia.
2. Your weight on stress
When gaining weight keeps getting easier but losing it keeps getting harder, the culprit may be stress. A study published in Biological Psychiatry found that chronic stress alone can slow your metabolism and increase cravings enough to make you gain 11 pounds every year! Plus, when you’re stressed, your body holds on to fat as an emergency resources, which can make weight loss feel nearly impossible.
3. Your immune system on stress
Many of my patients with autoimmune conditions have noticed their health declining or experience symptom flares during a stressful life event. Research has confirmed the stress-autoimmune connection. A 2001 study fond that autoimmune thyroid patients typically experienced stressful life events before diagnosis compared to control groups, and a 2012 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine found that childhood traumatic stress increased the likelihood of being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease later in life.
4. Your thyroid on stress
The thyroid gland is particularly sensitive to stress in multiple ways. For example, some studies suggest that stress decreases your conversion from T4 (inactive) to T3 (active) leading to low T3 syndrome, that stress can trigger autoimmune thyroid problems (Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease), and that stress can also cause or worsen thyroid resistance. For more on this, read about some of the underlying thyroid problems that may not show up on your standard labs.
5. Your gastrointestinal system on stress
The gut is often called the second brain because of the direct connection between these two systems. For example, the gut contains 95% of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology suggests that stress is linked to gastrointestinal conditions like IBS, GERD, and ulcers, demonstrating another aspect of this connection.
6. Your heart on stress
One of the most stressful jobs is caretaker for an ailing partner, child, or parent, and a study in Psychosomatic Medicine found that caregivers under chronic stress had an increased rate of heart disease, compared to non-caregivers. Work is another major source of stress for many, and a BMJ study suggested that stress at work is an important risk factor for metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions – like high triglycerides (a fat found in the blood) and high blood sugar – that raise your risk of heart disease and other health problems.
7. Your eyes and ears on stress
Have you ever noticed your eyelid twitching? Chronic stress can lead to eyelid twitching and spasms, as well as being linked to ringing in the ears (tinnitus) and inner-ear-related vertigo, both of which can be debilitating.
8. Your adrenal glands on stress
One University of California, Berkeley, study showed that while the brain is responsible for signaling the release of cortisol through the HPA (brain-adrenal) axis, it can sometimes damage itself by releasing excess cortisol because chronically high cortisol can create a domino effect that actually changes pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala. This can become a vicious cycle wherein the brain becomes hard-wired to remain in a constant state of fight-or-flight. Over time, this can also lead to a debilitating condition commonly called adrenal fatigue.
9. Your chromosomes on stress
Telomeres, the end-caps to your chromosomes, can be shortened by aging and disease, in turn shortening lifespan. In general, the longer your telomeres, the longer your life, and vice versa. But even chronic stress can shorten telomere length, accelerating aging, according to what some research has shown. Another study found that women under chronic stress had shorter telomeres equivalent to a decade of aging compared with women who reported low stress.
What should you do now?
Fortunately, there are far better alternatives than living life under the crushing weight and multiple health consequences of chronic stress. Research shows that mindfulness meditation can be an effective way to combat chronic stress, breaking the dangerous cycle and improving quality of life. For more help, check out the daily habits I recommend, to invite more serenity into your day. You could also take advantage of a free health evaluation to get a functional medicine perspective on the mind-body connection to your health problems.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer in person as well as phone and webcam consultations for people across the country and around the world.
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