Harmful effects of stress are well-known for a long time. In this article, you will learn how stress affects your emotional as well as physical health. There is a strong mind – body connection. The Mind affects the function of each and every cell in the body. A stressed out mind leads to a stressed out body. Stress, in this way, plays an important role in the causation of most medical illnesses. Of course, stress is not the only culprit. There are other factors such as genetics, nutrition, lifestyle, pollution and micro-organisms that take part in the development of medical illnesses. But stress is a major player.
Stress Causes High Blood Pressure
Stress is a well known risk factor for high blood pressure. In my office, if your blood pressure is found to be elevated, I’ll give you my brief talk on the effects of stress on blood pressure and how to manage stress. To the patients’ utter surprise, their blood pressure often comes down by 10-20 points.
Some patients say, “But I’m in your office, doc. That’s why my blood pressure is high.” Well, it is true that just being in a physician’s office can be stressful and stress does raise your blood pressure through the mind-body connection. Now imagine how frequently you deal with stress in daily life: someone cuts you off in traffic; your boss cancels your vacation; you get a call from the principal about your kid’s misbehavior; your spouse doesn’t listen to what you say. You got the picture?
When patients consult me, they’re usually already on medications to treat their hypertension. Instead of adding another pill to control their blood pressure, I teach them my strategy for stress management that works well. In medical literature, there’s abundant evidence to show that techniques which utilize the mind-body connection can successfully lower blood pressure.
Stress May Play A Role In Heart Attacks
Acute stress can lead to an actual heart attack. I’m not talking about just a sensation of chest tightness while you’re under stress (which often turns out not to be an actual heart attack). I’m referring to an actual heart attack verified by ECG and blood testing. This association between stress and heart attack is very well documented in medical literature and my extensive medical experience testifies to it.
I vividly remember one particular case. I was watching the final basketball championship game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Detroit Pistons on TV in 1988, while on call in a Detroit hospital. The Pistons lost in the last few seconds of the game. Being a big Pistons fan, it broke my heart. While talking to my friends about our collective agony, I got an emergency call from the nurse. A heart patient who was watching the game actually suffered another heart attack after watching his team lose the playoff! This is the power of stress.
Stress Predisposes To Infections
We are constantly exposed to viruses and bacteria, but we don’t develop infections all the time. The reason? Our immune system, which is there to recognize the offending agent, mounts an attack and kills it.
When your immune system is healthy, it gets rid of the offending virus or bacteria so fast that you don’t even develop any symptoms. On the other hand, if your immune system is weak, the offending virus or bacteria can thrive and results into frequent and prolonged illnesses that can even kill a person.
One of the harmful effcets of stress is to weaken our immune system. Consequently, it increases your risk for all sorts of infections, such as common colds, flu, COVID, bronchitis, pneumonia, tuberculosis and other infections.
Stress Contributes To Autoimmune Diseases
Another harmful effect of stress is to increase your risk of an autoimmune disease. In an autoimmune disease, your immune system goes haywire. Then, it starts to attack and kill your own cells as if they are alien and therefore, must be destroyed. But why does the immune system go crazy?
Some examples of autoimmune diseases:
- Ulcerative colitis
- Crohns’ disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Peptic ulcer disease
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
- Pernicious anemia
- Type 1 diabetes
- Multiple sclerosis (M.S.)
- Chronic rheumatologic conditions (such as rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, systemic lupus erythematosis, commonly known as lupus, and ankylosing spondylitis).
- Autoimmune thyroid disease, which can either cause you to have a low level of thyroid hormone (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) or a high level of thyroid hormone (Graves’ disease).
As an endocrinologist, I see a lot of patients with autoimmune Type 1 diabetes and autoimmune thyroid diseases such as Over-active thyroid (Graves’ disease) and Under-active thyroid (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis). These patients often also have other autoimmune diseases listed above.
In these patients, I consistently find a high level of stress, usually a Type A personality (overachiever) and a lot of anxiety. In addition, these patients are also low in Vitamin D.
I vividly remember one particular case: A young female came to see me for an over-active thyroid condition (Graves’ disease). She was accompanied by her husband. During my first encounter, I found that her husband answered all of my questions. I started her on a drug to treat Graves’ disease.
On the second appointment, she was accompanied not only by her husband, but her five children. Her husband introduced each child, one by one. When he uttered their name, each child would stand up, step forward, say their name and sit down (only after being told to do so). Somehow, it reminded me of the movie, “The Sound of Music.” I refilled the patient’s medicine and advised her to see me again in two months with a repeat blood test. I did stress that the drug she was taking can cause serious side-effects, so close monitoring was important.
Unfortunately, she did not show up for her next appointment. I got concerned and tried to contact her by telephone and letters, but to no avail. Finally, one day she showed up in my office after about a year all by herself. During this visit, she couldn’t stop talking. She was fluent in English and not shy at all.
She started by saying that her husband had passed away. “How do you feel?” I asked. “Oh! I’m feeling just fine. I haven’t taken the medicine you prescribed for nine months, but I feel no symptoms of over-active thyroid.” Then she also explained that her husband was a control freak. She had been very afraid of him. She said her life was a “living hell on earth.”
I ordered a blood test to check her thyroid hormone level which, to my utter astonishment, turned out to be perfectly normal. To put things in perspective, Graves’ disease usually requires treatment with drugs for about two years with a success rate of about 50%. The alternative treatment is an ablation with radioactive iodine. It does not subside by itself in a matter of months. It is unheard of. And yet, that is what happened when the stress in her life disappeared. This case clearly illustrates the power of stress in causing Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder.
Stress Contributes To The Development of Diabetes
While there are several factors that contribute to the development of diabetes, harmful effect of stress is an important one.
This is how:
How Stress Contributes to Type 2 Diabetes:
About 95% of diabetics suffer from Type 2 diabetes, which occurs due to a process in the body called insulin resistance. Stress is a major cause for insulin resistance. Obesity is another important culprit for insulin resistance. Stress through Stress Eating contributes to obesity. In this way, stress significantly contributes to a person’s obesity and risk for developing diabetes.
Insulin resistance is a process in the body which causes insulin, a chemical in your body, to be less effective in keeping your blood sugar normal. Consequently, your body produces more insulin in order to keep your blood sugar normal. This compensatory increase in the amount of insulin may control your blood sugar for a while, but it’s harmful for the rest of the body. Large amounts of insulin can raise your blood pressure and increase your risk for cancer. Insulin resistance also increases your risk for heart attacks and strokes.
After many years of escalating insulin resistance, eventually your insulin producing cells in the pancreas get exhausted and cannot churn out the huge amounts of insulin needed to keep your blood sugar normal. At this point, your blood sugar starts to rise and you end up with Type 2 diabetes.
Stress Contributes to Type 1 Diabetes:
Type I diabetes is the other type of diabetes. It is much less common, accounting for about 5% of diabetics. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which your dysfunctional immune system starts to attack and kill your own insulin producing cells. Eventually your pancreas is unable to produce any insulin and you become diabetic. As I mentioned earlier, stress is a major reason for the dysfunction of your immune system.
Stress Worsens Diabetes:
Many diabetics are fully aware of the effects of stress on their blood sugar levels. They see their blood glucose gets elevated when they are under stress, even though their eating habits didn’t change at all. They also know that with the release of stress, their elevated blood glucose comes down.
Over the years, I have seen many such examples of the harmful effects of stress on diabetes. I vividly remember one particular case.
The gentleman was a highly successful businessman who was struggling to keep his blood glucose levels down. Then he went on a vacation to his native homeland in a rural setting. When he came back from vacation, he came to see me. “Doc, you’ve been telling me about the effects of stress on diabetes. You are absolutely right. During my vacation, my blood glucose readings were perfect for the first time. Now that I’m back at work, my blood glucose levels are going up again.” He was genuinely excited to see for himself the strong relationship between stress and high blood glucose levels.
Even subtle stress can elevate your blood glucose levels. For example, some diabetics get so preoccupied by their blood glucose readings that they stress themselves out. As a result, their blood glucose reading starts to escalate. Then they get more stressed out and a vicious cycle sets in.
I remember one lady who was always preoccupied with her blood glucose readings. During one visit, I told her to stop checking her blood glucose. Two months later, her diabetes was under better control, as evidenced by her blood test report from the laboratory. She was completely amazed.
These examples clearly demonstrate the harmful effect of stress on diabetes.
Stress Causes Chronic Diarrhea (IBS) and Constipation
Millions of people suffer from chronic diarrhea and/or constipation. Often these symptoms are accompanied by abdominal cramps, excessive gas and tiredness. In medical terms, we call it Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Stress is a known factor for IBS. Most people who suffer from IBS can clearly relate their bout of diarrhea or constipation to an acute stress.
In a more severe form, people also develop blood and mucus in their loose stools. This condition is medically known as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are two forms of IBD. Stress is a known risk factor for IBD.
Stress Causes Chronic Low Back Pain
Believe it or not, a major harmful effect of stress is on your back. Millions of people suffer from chronic low back pain which is often debilitating and interferes with their lifestyle. They visit their doctor who often prescribes pain killers and orders a CT or MRI scan which often shows some degenerative abnormalities in the spine. Then physicians and patients conveniently blame these structural abnormalities for their symptoms. But here are some interesting medical facts.
Many people, while having some chronic degenerative changes in their spine, do not suffer from chronic back pain while others do. Several studies have clearly shown that the psychological make-up of a person is the principal determinant whether a person will suffer from chronic back pain or not.
I have often seen patients who develop severe back pain when under severe psychological stress. And when the acute stress is gone, so is their back pain.
I am not discounting those cases of severe back pain which are due to structural changes, such as fracture of a vertebra or acute prolapse of a disc. However, these pains actually subside after a few weeks. Chronic back pain that goes on for months and years is at least, in part, due to stress. Furthermore, chronic debilitating back pain itself creates more stress, which further worsens back pain and in this way, a vicious cycle sets in.
How Stress Causes Chronic Low Back Pain:
Stress causes spasms of muscles in the back and contributes to ongoing back pain months after a vertebra or a prolapsed disc has healed.
Vitamin D deficiency is another common cause of chronic back pain, which unfortunately remains undiagnosed and untreated in most people.
Stress May Contribute To Cancer
While there are many factors that can cause cancer, stress is one of them.
A normal immune system is important for killing abnormal cells in the body, including cancer cells. This function is carried out by specialized cells, called Natural Killer cells. That’s why a normal functioning immune system is your safety net against cancer.
Stress impairs your immune system and thus may increase your risk for cancer. And if you get diagnosed with cancer, you are completely devastated. The amount of stress is unbelievable, which further impairs the ability of your own immune system to kill cancer cells.
Effect Of Stress On Your Menses
Harmful effects of stress on reproductive system are well-known. In fatc, acute emotional trauma, such as a divorce, preparing for a performance or an examination, or a young girl leaving home for the first time to go to college, can stop menses for a while.
How Stress Affects Your Menses
Severe emotional stress affects the hypothalamus, a vital structure in the brain, which then affects the ovaries in such a way that menses come to a halt. It is body’s way to stop reproduction at the time of stress.
Stress May Cause Impotence, Decreased Libido and Infertility
Stress is a major reason for impotence, lack of sexual drive and decreased fertility due to a decrease in sex hormones. Again, it is the body’s way to stop reproduction at a time of stress.
Ironically, when people develop these symptoms, they get more stressed out, which leads to worsening of the symptoms and a vicious cycle sets in.
Stress Causes Chronic Headaches
Another harmful effect of stress is chronic headaches. This is how! Due to stress, the muscles around the skull get tense and give rise to a headache. In medical terms, we refer to them as tension headaches. Ironically, we treat them with medicines without paying any attention to the underlying cause – stress. Amazing!
Stress Causes Memory Loss
Stress is a risk factor for memory loss. Find out for yourself. Next time you’re upset, you’ll notice that your memory is not very sharp. In fact, people who stay upset and angry often end up with memory loss as they grow older, as compared to people who are the happy go lucky type. Because physicians cannot find a treatable medical reason for their memory loss, they label this condition as Alzheimer’s disease. The news of this diagnosis creates huge anxiety for patients as well as caregivers. Many people these days worry that they will develop Alzheimer’s disease in their old age. In this way, they hasten their own memory loss, while worrying about how to prevent memory loss. How ironic!
Stress Causes Psychological – Psychiatric Illnesses
Well-known harmful effects of stress include insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, bipolar affective disorder, attention deficit disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, addictions and even psychosis.
Stress Causes Tiredness
Tiredness is perhaps the most common symptom people experience. Often, it’s caused by a mixture of psychological and physical effects of stress. A stressed out mind leads to a stressed out body.
The following effects of stress can contribute to tiredness in a person. For many people, more than one condition is a causative factor of tiredness.
- Continuous psychological pressure wears you down. It could be pressure to achieve, succeed or accomplish. The pressure could arise out of performing, seeking approval or meeting certain tight schedules or deadlines.
- Insomnia, which causes daytime somnolence and tiredness.
- Depression leads to low energy state.
- Autoimmune thyroid disease (underactive or overactive thyroid) causes tiredness.
- Diabetes, if uncontrolled, leads to tiredness.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency, which is an autoimmune disorder, causes tiredness.
- Chronic rheumatologic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are due to autoimmune dysfunction and give rise to a lot of tiredness.
- Adrenal Insufficiency: A rare condition in which your immune system attacks and kills your adrenal glands. You end up with profound fatigue and low blood pressure.
Harmful effects of stress play a significant role in most of our illnesses. For this reason, it is important to live a life free of stress. But, how? First find out the rot cause of your stress, which actually lies inside you, not out there. It is your Acquired Self, which you acquire as you grow up in a society.