The Link Between Stress And Disease

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The Link Between Stress And Disease

Stress? Who doesn’t have stress?  Everyone, at some point during their life will experience some form of stress; but the key is to know exactly how to handle it and arrest it at its first sign.

Stress can have a tremendous impact on your body if not managed adequately regardless of whether you realize it or not.  Stress can affect you at a cellular level, and it may be the major contributing factor to various illnesses.  Therefore, it is imperative that it is managed accordingly.    

How Does Stress Affect Your Body?

Stress can affect your physical, mental, and social well-being.  Being able to recognize the first signs of stress can help you better manage your stress levels and avoid all of the health effects that are associated with it. 

During a stressful event, several chemicals are released into the brain, as the sympathetic nervous system is activated. The chemicals released are the same chemicals that are released during a fight or flight situation. 

A fight or flight situation is also known as an acute stress response, which activates a psychological and physiological response to stress by preparing the body to react to danger. When your body is under acute stress, it activates your sympathetic nervous system as there is a sudden release of hormones. The adrenal glands are then stimulated by the sympathetic nervous system, which then triggers the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and noradrenaline, which are also known as catecholamines. (1)

Some of the signs and symptoms that may be stress induced include, but are not limited to:

  • Headaches

Headaches have been linked with high levels of stress; but according to the Cleveland Clinic, there’s no official headache classification of stress headaches. 

“Stress can contribute to vascular changes or changes to your blood vessels, which can bring about migraines, changes in your blood pressure level, increased heart rate, and changes in your breathing pattern to name a few. After the threat is gone, it takes between 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal levels.”(1)

  • Mood changes: 

Mood changes such as anxiety, feelings of sadness, angry outbursts, depression, decreased motivation, lack of focus, irritability, and including restlessness can all be associated with high levels of stress. 

An observational study conducted on Prevalence of perceived stress and associations to symptoms of exhaustion, depression, and anxiety in a working-age population seeking primary care – an observational study, concluded that a high level of perceived stress was often accompanied by symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. (3)

Another study conducted on the Association between Anger and Mental Stress-Induced Myocardial Ischemia concluded that having higher levels of anger related to stress is highly correlated with the possibility of having a stress-related heart attack. (4)

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  • Compulsive behavioral problems: 

Compulsive behavioral problems such as overeating or undereating, drug or alcohol misuse, and tobacco use to name a few have also been associated with high-stress levels. 

A study conducted on how chronic stress may facilitate the recruitment of habit- and addiction-related neurocircuitries through neuronal restructuring of the striatum, concluded that stress-related changes may play a significant role in addiction development.  According to the researchers in the study, chronic stress has the ability to change the brain through neuroplasticity in order to help promote a habit; hence contributing to those addictive behaviors. (5) 

  • Muscular tension:

Muscle tension is almost like the body’s natural reaction to guard itself against any injury or pain.  During stress, the muscles tense up and release their tension after the stress has passed.  This tension can contribute to muscular pain, knots, and spasms, especially in the shoulder, neck, and head regions of the body, but it may also affect other areas as well depending on where you store your stress.

“One theory is that muscle tension decreases blood flow, leading to lower oxygen delivery, lactic acid buildup, and the accumulation of toxic metabolites. Shortening of the muscle fibers can also activate pain receptors. Lack of movement can further reduce blood flow and oxygenation.”(7) 

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  • Suppresses the immune system:

Stress can also dysregulate humoral and cellular immune responses to pathogens, increasing the risk for infectious illnesses including influenza and the common cold (6)

When you are under stress your immune system’s ability to fight antigens is decreased; this is why when we are under stress we are at a greater risk for getting sick.

  • Mouth breathing:

As the sympathetic nervous system is activated during stress, it can also contribute to mouth breathing. As during a stressful event your breathing will become shallower and deeper, making your respiration abnormal and contributing to mouth breathing. Remember, when the sympathetic nervous system is activated, and you are in that fight or flight mode, your body tries to take in and reserve as much oxygen as possible because it is unaware of when it will be able to take in it’s next breath. This forces a need for air, and you resort to mouth breathing. 

When you breathe through your mouth, you are over-breathing. This over-breathing continues to increase the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and adds more pressure onto your heart; as it will increase your heart rate, muscle tension, and contributes to poor tissue oxygenation.

Mouth breathing has been linked to low oxygen concentration levels in the blood, which can be highly correlated to high blood pressure and heart failure to name a few.

Mouth breathing has many detrimental effects. To find out more check out my article on mouth breathing.

The effects of stress have been heavily correlated to disease; therefore taking the proper steps to tackle your stressors is essential for your overall well being. 

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Stress Management Techniques

There are a variety of different stress management techniques that have been proven to work wonders for those suffering from high loads of stress such as:

  • Exercise: daily exercise helps to release natural endorphins into your body, which can help with stress reduction. Establishing a daily exercise routine will not just help you alleviate stress; it can also help keep you in shape.
  • Diet: having a well-balanced diet with healthy foods can help reduce the negative effects that stress has on your body. Try including healthy foods that are rich in omega 3 fatty acids such as salmon; foods high in fiber such as beans and vegetables; Vitamin E; and polyphenols, which are found in green leafy vegetables and brightly colored peppers. (8)
  • Meditation: Meditating has many benefits associated with it. It has an overall calming effect on the body; and has been proven to be highly effective in those suffering from stress, as it puts your body into a deep state of relaxation.

Managing stress is the key to having a healthy life.  If you’ve already taken steps to reduce your stress levels, but your symptoms continue, seek the help of a medical professional.  

Disclaimer: The information contained within this site is provided as an informational resource only. Please consult with your medical doctor to see if these exercises are suited for you.

References:

  1. The American Institute of Stress. How the fight or flight response works. https://www.stress.org/how-the-fight-or-flight-response-works
  2. Cleveland Clinic. Stress and Headaches. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9646-stress-and-headaches#:~:text=During%20stressful%20events%2C%20certain%20chemicals,that%20can%20bring%20about%20migraines.
  3. Wiegner, L., Hange, D., Björkelund, C., & Ahlborg, G., Jr (2015). Prevalence of perceived stress and associations to symptoms of exhaustion, depression and anxiety in a working age population seeking primary care–an observational study. BMC family practice, 16, 38. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12875-015-0252-7 
  4. Pimple, P., Shah, A., Rooks, C., Bremner, J. D., Nye, J., Ibeanu, I., Murrah, N., Shallenberger, L., Kelley, M., Raggi, P., & Vaccarino, V. (2015). Association between anger and mental stress-induced myocardial ischemia. American heart journal, 169(1), 115–21.e2. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ahj.2014.07.031 
  5. Taylor, S. B., Anglin, J. M., Paode, P. R., Riggert, A. G., Olive, M. F., & Conrad, C. D. (2014). Chronic stress may facilitate the recruitment of habit- and addiction-related neurocircuitries through neuronal restructuring of the striatum. Neuroscience, 280, 231–242. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2014.09.029 
  6. Glaser R, Kiecolt-Glaser JK (2005) Stress-induced immune dysfunction: implications for health. Nat Rev Immunol 5:243–251
  7. Wei, M; 5 Ways Stress Hurts Your Body, And What To Do About It. https://tinyurl.com/y3csegat
  8. Rosenbrock, K; In Need of Stress Relief? The Answer Might Be In Your Diet. https://www.theactivetimes.com/fitness/nutrition/need-stress-relief-answer-might-be-your-diet
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