How can stress affect my health?

Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
When you’re faced with a stressor, your brain sets off a cascade of hormone-releasing events to defeat it. When the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are elevated, they age your arteries, destroy connections in your brain and damage your immune system -- hurting not just your happiness levels but also the insides of your body.
This Is Your Do-Over: The 7 Secrets to Losing Weight, Living Longer, and Getting a Second Chance at the Life You Want

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This Is Your Do-Over: The 7 Secrets to Losing Weight, Living Longer, and Getting a Second Chance at the Life You Want

From one of America’s most trusted physicians and the bestselling coauthor of the YOU series with Dr. Mehmet Oz—this practical and empowering guide shares the seven secrets to losing weight, restoring peak vitality, and regaining optimal health at any age.No matter whether you’re a stressed-out workaholic, a couch potato, or a marshmallow addict, it’s never too late to get a second chance. You do not have to let genetics or bad choices of the past dictate your health outcomes. In fact, you have the power to change your body—as well as which of your genes are switched on—no matter how you’ve lived in the past.In This Is Your Do-Over, Dr.Michael Roizen, four-time New York Times #1 bestselling author and renowned Chief Wellness Officer of the Cleveland Clinic, provides the tools you need to slam the brakes on bad health and press the gas pedal to good health. In the book, he addresses all the areas that contribute to total-body wellness, including nutrition, exercise, sex, stress, sleep, and the brain. Using concrete strategies that anyone of any age can use, Dr. Roizen shows you how to change your heath destiny with his seven simple secrets to earning a Do-Over. He even shares the key step missing in most other programs: how to select and partner with the proper buddy or coach to get you to your goals. Grounded in cutting-edge scientific research and culled from Dr. Roizen’s experience coaching thousands, This Is Your Do-Over is the ultimate guide to reversing damage, optimizing health, and living a life filled with energy and happiness. It is not too late; your Do-Over starts now.
Stress is the body's normal reaction to situations of threat of harm, whether real or perceived. In fact, the human body appears to have been designed over centuries to experience stress and react appropriately in self-preservation. Stress can be positive, keeping us alert and ready to avoid danger. When alarmed, a physiologic reaction occurs in both the body and mind called “stress response” or "fight-or-flight reflex” that primes a person to respond to avoid harm, prevent injury, challenge a perceived threat, and safeguard against life-threatening situations and lethal wounds. At these times, the heart begins to race, the breathing quickens, the muscles tighten, the blood pressure rises, and the thought process sharpens. 

Not all stress is bad. In small amounts, low levels of stress may help one to accomplish tasks and achieve goals and hone confidence in their decision-making. The human body appears to handle small doses of stress well in the short term but is not equipped to handle chronic stress over the long term without unintended ill consequences.

In fact, stress can affect all organs of the human body, alter thoughts and feelings, and change a person’s behavior. Stress becomes negative when a person faces continuous challenges and becomes overworked and begins to experience stress-related tension without relief or relaxation. Stress can worsen many chronic medical and psychiatric diseases and trigger new physical symptoms including headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, sleep problems, visual disturbances, and pain. The detrimental effects of stress become especially harmful when people use alcohol, tobacco, or drugs to relieve their stress. Instead of relieving stress and returning the body to a relaxed state, these substances keep the body in a stressed state and cause more medical problems. Persistent stress causes and worsens many serious chronic health problems, including:       
  • Mental health problems
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Menstrual problems
  • Sexual dysfunctions
  • Skin and hair problems
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Neurological disorders
  • Autoimmune and rheumatologic disorders
Susan S. Blum, MD
Preventive Medicine

Stress that is comes and goes quickly does not cause any problems. It is when you get stuck in the “on” position, and your stress hormones remain at high levels for weeks or months, then your body starts showing the effects. From high cortisol levels you might notice weight gain around the middle, that you are getting sick all the time, that your blood sugar is going up, that you are losing muscle mass and your hair is thinning.

Over time, your adrenal glands (where the stress hormones are made) get tired and this is when you might notice you are tired, too. Once you have adrenal fatigue, most people feel exhausted, have low sex drive, and are depressed. It is best not to let your adrenals get to this state of exhaustion by reducing the stress in your life, and by practicing mind-body techniques like meditation and yoga, to help your body relax and move into the off position every day.

Ms. Ashley Koff, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
Stress's impact on all things physiological, mental, psychological, and spiritual are well documented. And remarkable. Innumerable studies have shown a direct link between stress and weight gain, for instance; stress can drain your energy simply by taxing your metabolism and flooding the body with stress hormones that weaken your whole energy equation. In studies, more than 70 percent of those who undereat or overeat during a stressful period admit to snacking on foods that are nutrient poor. Fats and sugars seem to fit the bill during times of stress.

New research from Germany shows that people who had heart attacks were three times more likely than not to have been sitting in traffic an hour before their symptoms began. And for some strange reason not identified yet, a woman's risk of heart attack is five times higher within an hour of being in traffic.

We are accepting an unprecedented level of stress in our lives. All of this has put a great strain on our health and well-being, especially because the vast majority of Americans are barely keeping up. So it's not surprising that over the past few years doctors in all fields of medicine have seen a dramatic change in their patients' stress levels. Stress is at the top of the metaphorical food chain -- tripping a cascade of events that can lead to thicker waistlines, dour moods, poor sleep, chronic inflammation, and oxidative stress, and, as a result, an unhealthy body and energy level.

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Dr. Kathleen Hall
Preventive Medicine
Stress is "The Epidemic of the 21st Century." We now have scientific evidence that chronic stress shortens our lives, accelerates the aging process, and is a direct contributor to cancer, heart disease, obesity, hypertension, arthritis, diabetes and too many other diseases to name. Our current research reveals that the medical toll of chronic stress costs Americans at least $300 billion a year in treatment and lost productivity.
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The direct, unpleasant psychological burden is familiar to all. In addition, stress increases the level of catecholamine hormones and cortisol. These, in turn, result in increases in insulin levels. A cascading array of hormones out of balance ensues, leading to increased blood pressure, inflammation, fatigue, immune system impairment, weight gain, and over time, injury to cells that can contribute to the development of chronic diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

Jill R. Baron, MD
Family Medicine
Managing stress has been a major area of interest for me because it has been my own biggest health challenge. Stress affects all aspects of a patient’s body, mind, and spirit. The “Stress Response” is a biochemical and physiologic reaction to a real or perceived threat. It evolved in primitive times so that our forerunners could either “fight or flee” from threatening situations. This reaction causes a release of hormones and chemicals, predominantly adrenaline also known as epinephrine, and cortisol. These hormones go to all the parts of the body including the organ systems and cells to get the body ready to fight or flee causing temporary increases in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate. In addition, the pupils in the eyes dilates to see better, and blood is diverted away from the genitals and stomachs, to the large muscles in our legs and arms. Cortisol causes stored sugar and fat in our bodies are released to provide the energy to fight or flee. The danger of the stress response is if it is occurring frequently in a person’s life. The consequences of chronic stress are many—including a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, hair loss, and possibly cancer, to name a few.
While short-term stress can give you the energy you need to get through a situation, chronic stress negatively affects your quality of life and can contribute to disease.
There are many harmful effects of chronic stress, including
  • increased risk of having a heart attack and dying suddenly from a heart event;
  • increased blood pressure, heart rate, and damage to the lining of artery walls (a contributor to cardiovascular disease);
  • elevated blood sugar levels if you have diabetes;
  • a weakened immune system and worsening of skin conditions such as eczema;
  • digestive problems and obesity
  • poor sleep, making you irritable and putting you on edge; and
  • increased risk for depression.
Frank Yanowitz, MD
Geriatric Medicine
Stress is the body’s emotional and physical response to a change. The change can be anything from the birth of a baby or scoring a touchdown to traffic jams, financial pressures, divorce, or illness. One of the ways your body responds to stress is by shifting energy from your immune system and the digestive system to the heart--increasing heart rate and blood pressure. This is fine for short periods of time, but if these changes are frequent or prolonged--as in chronic stress--they can take a toll on your body. Chronic stress without periods of relaxation or relief can deplete your energy, cause relationship problems, and lead to smoking, drinking, overeating, and other negative behaviors. Chronic stress can also lead to depression.
Eric Olsen
By some estimates, perhaps as many as 80 percent of all diseases are at least partially related to the effects of chronic, unrelieved stress, that stomach-knotting, teeth-gritting sense that things are closing in on us, an increasingly inescapable feature of our fast-paced, rapidly changing, and socially fragmented modern world.

Stress raises the blood pressure and increases the risk of strokes, heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other serious health problems such as kidney disease. Stress appears to weaken the immune system, increasing the risk of infection and perhaps some types of cancer. Stress also has been linked to an increased risk of asthma, arthritis, sleep disorders, eating disorders, migraines, chronic anxiety, difficulty concentrating, alcohol and drug abuse, and depression. Stress may even increase the risk of accidental death or injury.

And stress can also make you age more quickly. Solid evidence is accumulating showing that hormones released by the brain during times of chronic, unrelieved stress accelerate the aging process. In particular, glucocorticoids, hormones that help us think more quickly and clearly during brief periods of acute stress, will damage brain cells over longer periods as a result of chronic, unrelieved stress. And the result, of course, is memory loss, declining mental sharpness, and, at its worst, dementia.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.