The ubiquity of chronic stress in our busy, modern world is undeniable. In fact, if you looked around at most of the population, you'd think that being stressed, anxious, depressed, irritable, addicted to caffeine and craving salty or sugary foods was normal human behavior. But just because something is common doesn't make it normal.
This almost palpable undercurrent of stress and anxiety impacts 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!
Why might that be? Let's take a look at the various ways stress can impact your body, according to research. Of course, my goal isn't to stress you out more; rather, consider these to be nine more reasons to focus on what you can do to manage stress.
1. Your brain
When you're stressed, your brain's 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 actually triggers long-term changes in the structure and function of the brain — changes which can contribute to mental health issues.
2. Your weight
Feel like you're unable to lose weight sustainably? Many people might be holding onto weight because of 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!
3. Your immune system
Many of my patients with autoimmune conditions have noticed their health declining during a stressful life event.
Research has confirmed the stress-autoimmune connection. A 2001 study found that autoimmune thyroid patients had more stressful life events before their 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
Stress can impact your thyroid in many different ways. For example, some studies suggest that stress decreases your conversion from T4 (inactive) to T3 (active) leading to low T3 syndrome, trigger autoimmune thyroid problems (Hashimoto's and Graves' disease), or cause 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
Your gut is known as your second brain. In fact, it contains 95% of your serotonin, or "happy" neurotransmitter. So it's not surprising that a 2011 study published in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology suggests that stress is linked to gastrointestinal conditions like IBS, GERD and ulcers.
6. Your heart
Many of my patients have noticed their health declining during their time caring for an ailing partner or parent. In fact, a study in Psychosomatic Medicine found that caregivers under chronic stress had an increased rate of heart disease, compared to non-caregivers.
Plus, a BMJ study suggests 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
Have your eyes ever annoyingly twitched? Chronic stress can lead to eye twitching and spasms. Plus, chronic stress has also been linked to ringing in the ears (tinnitus) and vertigo, both of which can be debilitating.
8. Your adrenal glands
One University of California, Berkeley, study showed that while the brain signals the release of cortisol through the HPA (brain-adrenal) axis, excess cortisol will in turn hurt your brain.
In other words, chronically high cortisol can create a domino effect that actually changes pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala — it's a vicious cycle where the brain becomes hard-wired to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight. Overtime, this also can lead to what's called adrenal fatigue.
9. Your chromosomes
Telomeres, the end-caps to your chromosomes, are linked to aging and disease. In general, the longer your telomeres, the longer your life and vice versa.
Research has shown that chronic stress actually shortens your telomere lengths, which accelerates your aging. Another study found that women under chronic stress had telomeres that were shorter than those of low-stress women — equivalent to a decade of aging.
What should you do now?
If you're waiting for the right time to focus on stress management and your overall health, it's now.
Research shows that mindfulness meditation can be an effective way to break the unrelenting storm of stress. For more help, check out the daily habits I recommend to invite calm and mindfulness into your day, or other stress-management strategies that might help you. You can also consider taking advantage of a free evaluation to get a functional medicine perspective on the mind-body connection to your health problems.
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