10 Reasons Stress Can Be Dangerous For Your Health
So often stress is considered an amorphous gray area—something we can’t put our finger on or measure that gets dismissed as not being “real.” But I believe that what we think and feel, and how long we think it or feel it, determines our health. Here are 10 concrete ways stress is possibly the most dangerous toxin your body faces every day.
1. Stress changes gene expression.
The chemicals your body produces when you are under stress turn on or off of genes that change everything from how much fat you store, to how well your immune system works, to how fast you age, to whether or not you will develop cancer.
2. Early life events determine your set point for stress.
Research shows that even very early childhood events “set” your CRH, or corticotropin releasing hormone, at a high or low level. CRH is like the foot on the gas turning on your adrenals, and therefore your stress levels.
3. Stress alters the brain.
High levels of stress hormones damage critical parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus, the area responsible for memory. One reason people experience “adrenal burnout” after long term chronic stress, is because the brain, in order to save itself, turns off the adrenals.
4. Stress affects the immune system and increases inflammation.
From slowing wound healing to diminishing the protective effects of vaccines to increasing your susceptibility to infections, stress is the ultimate immune-modulator. Stress can also reactivate latent infections—people who get cold sores know this from experience.
5. Chronic stress damages the energy powerhouses of your body, your mitochondria.
These energy factories produce ATP, the currency through which all cells and organs in your body do their work. The good news is this damage is reversible over time, as stress goes away.
6. Stress reduces your ability to metabolize and detoxify.
Studies have shown1 that the activity of hundreds of genes responsible for enzymes that break down fats and detoxify prescription drugs, are negatively impacted by stress. Stress can also increase your toxin burden by increasing your desire for high-fat, high-sugar foods.
7. Stress can increase cardiac output.
Chronic stress has been shown to increase the thickness of the artery walls, which could lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.
8. Stress messes with your sex hormones.
Stress increases the amount of something called sex hormone binding globulin, the school bus that ferries testosterone and estrogen around your body, meaning fewer of these hormones are available to your cells. Chronic stress also increases the production of cortisol, leading to something called “cortisol steal,” where fewer sex hormones are produced.
9. Stress is bad for your bones and muscles.
There is evidence that higher stress levels are associated with lower bone mineral density, and studies show2 that people under chronic stress experience more physical pain.
10. The gut and stress are intimately intertwined.
You may have heard that 95% of your serotonin is in your gut, and you may remember a time when you were nervous or sad, and your belly was in knots. But more research is showing how stress impacts the function of your gut every day. It slows transit, leading to constipation and the re-circulation of hormones like estrogen through your liver. It increases the overgrowth of bad bacteria. And it loosens the barriers between the cells that line the intestines, creating something called leaky gut, that then leads to inflammation, food sensitivities and even autoimmune disease.
Now that you know how stress impacts your body—what can you do about it?
There are plenty of daily practices that can help prime your body better react to stress: Engaging in moderate exercise, meditating, practicing gratitude, and getting better sleep are some biggies. Eating the right foods (plenty of leafy vegetables and healthy fats) and getting enough nutrients like B vitamins, magnesium, and calcium, either through diet or supplementation, can also help promote a healthy stress response in the body.* If stress is something you've always had trouble tackling, I suggest finding a functional medicine doctor who can help you get to the root cause and bring you back into balance.
Robin Berzin, M.D., is a functional medicine physician and the founder of Parsley Health. She currently lives in New York, NY and her mission is to make functional medicine affordable and modern, so more people can access a holistic, root-cause approach to health.
A Summa Cum Laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Berzin went to medical school at Columbia University and later trained in internal medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. She is also a certified yoga instructor and a meditation teacher, and has formally studied Ayurveda. Dr. Berzin writes for a number of leading wellness sites, and speaks regularly for organizations including the Clinton Foundation, Health 2.0, Summit and the Functional Forum, on how we can reinvent health care.
She's also a mindbodygreen courses instructor, teaching her Stress Solution program designed to help you tune down the stress in your life and tune up your energy and happiness.