How does stress affect the body?

Holly Lucille, ND,RN
Health Education
Stress is more than just a mood buster. In this video, naturopathic doctor Holly Lucille lists the many surprising ways that stress can impact your body in this video.
Stress can take a toll on your entire body, says integrative medicine specialist Dr. Tasneem Bhatia. To learn about the various ways that stress can affect your body, watch this video.

The hormones released during the body's stress response affect the body in several ways. Short-term stress helps people perform at a higher level, improving memory and the immune system. In fact, the body needs periodic stimulation to keep the stress response sharp. When you perceive stress all around you, however, the stress response never stops. Stress hormones make the body process sugar quickly, and without sugar, the hormones damage tissue and muscle. Over time, constant stress can lead to depression, bone loss, digestive issues, heart disease and sleep disorders.

Ben Kaminsky
Chronic or daily stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, stimulating the release of hormones, such as cortisol. A constant saturation of cortisol results in many physical changes in the body, including increased heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. Under normal conditions these changes subside quickly, but chronic stressors, including anxiety, fear, anger, and grief, can keep the nervous system perpetually aroused. Prolonged stress has been found to contribute to illness and lowered immune systems in both human and animal models.

Given the recent findings that show stress contributing to skin problems and diseases, it seems logical to presume that decreasing stress can decrease a person’s amount and duration of illness. The most convincing evidence appears in two small but well-done studies by researchers at the UCLA School of Medicine published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. The first study found that malignant melanoma patients trained in relaxation techniques showed significant increases in the number and activity of cancer-slaying natural killer cells. The second study, a recently published six-year follow-up, found higher mortality among the untrained group or those who did not use relaxation techniques.
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Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
When you are stressed, your body releases a flood of adrenaline, cortisone, and other stress hormones that induce physiologic changes. The heart pounds and blood pressure rises. You start to breathe more rapidly, and you feel more alert. Blood races to your brain and heart and moves away from the kidneys, liver, stomach, and skin. Your blood sugar level rises, as do the amounts of fats and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, also known as bad cholesterol, in your bloodstream. Unfortunately, the amount of proteins that cause inflammation, hazardous clotting factors, and platelets in the blood increases. In all, stress causes substantial system-wide changes.

Physically, chronic stress alters the immune responses, causing a decrease in the production of T and B cells, two types of white blood cells essential for fighting virus-infected cells, foreign cells, and cancer cells. Chronic stress also raises blood pressure.
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Stress has a clear impact on our bodies. When we are scared or tense, the heart races and our breathing becomes shallow. When our lives are particularly stressful, many of us experience headaches, digestive problems, insomnia, and a host of other discomforts. Some research provides evidence that chronic stress can make us more prone to anxiety and depression and put us at a higher risk of experiencing intense hot flashes and insomnia.
This answer is based on the source infromation from the National Women's Health Information Center.
Edward Phillips
Physical Therapy
Your body does a poor job of distinguishing between life-threatening events—the house is on fire!—and minor-league stressful situations. No matter what the trigger is, your heart beats faster than normal, you breathe more quickly, your blood pressure rises, and your muscles prepare to spring into action. Anger or anxiety triggered by less momentous sources of stress, such as financial worries, traffic jams, or even worry about problems that haven't actually occurred, doesn't find a quick physical release. Instead, it tends to build up as the day wears on. Physical and psychological symptoms of stress—a clenched jaw, shakiness, anxious feelings—compound this, creating a negative, self-perpetuating cycle that may prompt health problems over time.

High blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, is a prime example. Another is suppression of the immune system, which slows healing and makes you more susceptible to colds. Stress may contribute to, or exacerbate, many health problems, including allergic skin reactions, anxiety and depression, headaches, heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome, and pain springing from various conditions.
Stress causes a hormonal release of catecholamines and steroids. It is a "fight or flight" response to a stimulus. Long-term stress can affect the immune system, can increase blood pressure, and can increase the likelihood of stroke and heart attack. Immediate stress causes immediate reactions, while chronic stress can cause more prolonged and chronic changes. Stress not only affects the way we psychologically respond but also how our body responds physically.       
During stress, hormones including adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, resulting in:
  • an increased need for oxygen
  • increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • constricted blood vessels in the skin
  • tensed muscles
  • increased blood sugar levels
  • increased clotting ability of blood
  • spilling of stored fat from cells into the bloodstream
  • constriction of bowel and intestinal muscles
All these effects can strain your heart and artery linings. In fact, if you already have coronary heart disease, stress might lead to chest pain (angina). Plus, the increased tendency for blood to clot during stress may lead to a clot in your coronary arteries, causing a heart attack. Other physical dangers of stress include stomach problems as your bowel and intestinal muscles constrict.

While stress doesn't cause mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, it can activate them in people who may already be prone to them.

Too much stress can also affect your immune system, weakening it and making you more susceptible to colds, coughs and infections.

Other symptoms of stress include muscular tension, headaches, gastrointestinal illnesses and sleeping more or less than normal.
Stress triggers responses in the body -- blood pressure-raising, heart-racing, head-aching, muscle-tensing, stomach-churning kinds of responses. When these responses continue for long periods without relief, they eventually become chronic conditions, illness and disease. Stanford Medical School and the World Health Organization agree that stress causes 85-95% of all illness and disease.

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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.