The long-term effects of stress on our health are a major concern for most people living a health-conscious lifestyle these days and even more so for individuals already living with a chronic illness or health condition. For the average person, it’s a critical point for preventing stress-related illnesses from developing, and for those already living with health problems, it’s essential for managing their condition and preventing it from making things worse.
Stress occurs when the demands in our life exceed our ability to cope and it affects our emotional, physical, and spiritual health. On the emotional level, it may lead to depression and anxiety, while on the spiritual level we may not feel connected, fulfilled or balanced, and on the physical level, a variety of stress-related illnesses may develop. There really isn’t any part of the body that isn’t affected by stress.
Stress can be positive or negative, but either one triggers the body’s biological stress response in the same way and the impact on the body, mind, and self is the same. It begins in the brain and then the body reacts like a roller coaster. Excessive demands are perceived as a threat, which signals the body to stimulate a surge of hormones, which is the cause of the heightened state of alertness that accompanies the stress. That’s why you usually find you can’t sleep or relax while you’re in a stressed state.
Stress is an inevitable and normal part of life and the stress response works to our benefit in some cases. The increased energy your body generates when it’s under stress is necessary when you have an important deadline to meet or to increase reaction time under demanding circumstances. A little stress is needed for motivation and to maintain the neuroplasticity of the brain.
However, stress can be unhealthy if we’re subjected to it too often or for an extended period of time and the long-term effects of stress may result in impairment of the autonomic nervous system.
Health Effects of Stress
When the body is under stress, then high levels of stress regulating hormones and neurotransmitters like cortisol, norepinephrine, epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin are released. This is a natural and healthy response to help the body cope with the situation. Typically, the stressful event passes and the hormones and neurotransmitters retreat. The body returns to a state of non-stress. However, if you’re living with ongoing, incessant stress, then the body can never return to a state of non-stress. It continuously releases high levels of stress-regulating hormones and neurotransmitters.
If the body is exposed to these high levels of hormones and neurotransmitters on a continuous basis, then it eventually leads to dysfunction in the brain, endocrine system, nervous system, and metabolic system. Over time these hormones and neurotransmitters become depleted as they are exposed to overstimulation for too long and result in a variety of detrimental health effects. Cortisol is your primary hormone needed for coping with stress, and if it becomes too low, then your capacity to cope with stress is impaired, which then causes even more stress.
The three most serious and common effects of long-term stress are adrenal fatigue, neurotransmitter imbalances or deficiencies, and hormone imbalance. Each of these conditions leads to another long list of debilitating symptoms like depression, anxiety, inability to lose weight, hyperactivity, declining cognitive abilities, insomnia, chronic pain, excessive fatigue, allergies, addiction, hypoglycemia, type 2 diabetes, and a variety of other conditions, and each of these issues needs to be addressed independently.
Neurotransmitters play a vital role in overseeing practically all systems and functions of the human body, like our mental and cognitive functioning, weight regulation, sleep patterns, appetite, perception of pain and pleasure and our moods. When homeostasis is not maintained, then a variety of psychological and physiological disturbances occur. Those with an imbalance of neurotransmitters are at extremely high risk of addiction to drugs, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, sugar, and carbohydrates.
The adrenal glands, along with the hypothalamus and pituitary are one of the main organs involved in the stress response system. If they are not functioning adequately, then the ability to cope with stress adequately is lost. Adrenal fatigue occurs when the adrenal glands become exhausted from too much stress and then they no longer perform their functions as required, which leads to problems in regulating blood sugar, the immune system, inflammation, blood pressure and managing stress and fatigue. The individual is left vulnerable to chronic pain disorders, chronic fatigue, allergies, immune system conditions, asthma, addiction, and many more.
Hormones also have a crucial part in regulating our psychological and physical health, like mood, metabolism, mental and cognitive sexual function and development, and more, and are extremely sensitive to high levels of stress. When thrown out of balance by stress, they too result in numerous disruptive and sometimes debilitating symptoms.
Some of the most common effects of long-term stress on the body include: anxiety, headaches, moodiness, memory loss, inability to concentrate, aggressive behavior, back pain, upset stomach, disturbed sleep, respiratory interference, and even hair loss. However hair loss can occur for a variety of other reasons, such as low thyroid and heavy metals, so it’s important not to assume your hair loss is the result of stress without ruling out other causes.
One of the most well-known and widely researched effects of stress on the body is that related to the heart and its ability to contribute to coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, chest pains, or even irregular heartbeats.
Another of the most significant effects is that stress suppresses and weakens the immune system. This leaves your body vulnerable to colds, flu, and many other possible health conditions. The body’s reaction to stress also lowers your body’s white blood cell count which reduces your system’s ability to heal itself. Additionally, acute stress will aggravate any pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma.
Effects of Long-Term Stress on Chronic Illness
In addition to all the long-term effects of stress listed above, those living with chronic illness or other health conditions have a variety of other serious stress issues to contend with.
The very nature of living with chronic illness is stressful. There is no avoiding it. Stress is an integral element of chronic illness, resulting from the inevitable difficulties, loss, and restrictions that are faced when dealing with chronic health problems, which ultimately leads to a higher level of stress than the average person.
The fact that stress weakens the immune system and impedes the healing process means, that when left unchecked, it can actually aggravate existing health conditions, create new ones, and exacerbate whatever symptoms the chronically ill person already experiences.
When one’s capabilities may already be pushed to the limit dealing with the impact that illness has on one’s life, the ability to manage additional stress may feel overwhelming.
Why so Much Negative Stress?
Stress has been around since the beginning of time, so why is it so difficult for most people to handle these days?
There are two reasons:
- Most people have way too many demands in their life. They’re working too many hours and/or too many jobs, have too many activities, are juggling several high stress jobs while raising a family, are spending too much time in traffic, have too many stimuli in their environment, etc.
- Environmental toxins and poor diet are exhausting the endocrine system – particularly the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are one of the main organs involved in the fight or flight stress response. Diets that are high in sugar, white flour, refined foods, pesticides, and additives and low in nutrients lead to many health conditions including a malfunctioning endocrine system and depleted adrenal glands. The human body was not designed to handle the onslaught of environmental toxins we all live with daily and this puts excessive burden on the endocrine organs.
When your endocrine system is not functioning properly, you can’t cope with stress effectively. This results in a vicious cycle where the weakened endocrine system creates more stress and the higher levels of stress continuously weaken the endocrine system even more.
Life is stressful, there’s no doubt about it. It’s impossible to completely eradicate stress, nor would you want to, a certain amount is necessary and healthy. The solution is to reduce as much as possible and then find ways to cope and manage the stress that can’t be removed.
One of the most important steps you can take to minimize the long-term effects of stress on your health is to eat a healthy Paleo diet consisting of organic whole foods and adopt a green living lifestyle that limits the number of environmental toxins that you’ll be exposed to. Then practice a variety of stress-management techniques on a daily basis like mindfulness-based yoga, mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, and communing with nature.