Sure, stressful situations can be, well, stressful, but did you know that continued levels of stress can do far more damage than you may think? Everyone has their ‘bad’ days, but extended periods of stress can have negative effects on our health that many don’t realise, and without taking measures to reduce it, long-term stress can pose serious health risks:
Researchers are not 100% sure why stress increases the chances of heart disease. Some believe it's due to the fact that when people are stressed, they are less likely to exercise, less likely to make healthy food choices and also more likely to smoke. Other researchers believe it could be due to the raised levels of cortisol and adrenaline.
Do your most important muscle a favour; go to your favourite cafe, put your phone on airplane mode and read a book!
Memory loss and stress? Strange bedfellows, most would agree, but the science is there. The main culprit? Cortisol.
Many studies confirm that cortisol, a chemical that gets released in our brains when we experience severe or long-term stress, is toxic to our brain cells and that the longer we experience stress, the more this chemical builds up in our body. Other culprits, such as sleep deprivation, lack of social support (studies show that people who have a supportive group of people around them tend to have better memories than those who don't) as well as the intense distraction that is severe anxiety, all contribute to poor memory.
High blood pressure/Hypertension
Those pesky chemicals cortisol and adrenaline strike again. These chemicals are the ones responsible for our fight-or-flight systems and cause the heart to beat faster, resulting in more contracted blood vessels, restricting blood flow to our extremities and focusing on drawing it to the core of our bodies: super handy for our ancestors trying to escape those grizzly bears. Luckily for them, once they escaped that grizzly bear, their cortisol and adrenaline levels would go back to normal, as would their blood flow and heart beat. These days, stress takes on a completely different form than what it was all those years ago and extended periods of stress can mean extended periods of restricted blood flow to the rest of our bodies.
Our friend cortisol is at it again! Research has shown that sudden increases in stress hormones, including cortisol, can result in acne outbreaks. As well as acne, scientists have found links between stressful events and reactions in individuals who suffer from autoimmune conditions such as alopecia (hair loss). The link between stressors and skin conditions has become a new field of study, Psychodermatology, where experts believe a solution may lie for people suffering from conditions such as eczema and psoriasis due to stress.
We can all acknowledge that not all sleep problems are related to stress. However if you are stressed, chances are you will be having problems sleeping. Why? Well, stress causes a little thing called hyperarousal, or essentially when our bodies are in a ‘high alert’ state, and can directly disrupt our sleeping patterns.
Trouble sleeping due to stress can even result in chronic insomnia, so it’s important to get on top of any stress-related sleep issues you may be experiencing before they get too serious.
Our gut and stress levels have a surprisingly close relationship, with our stress levels far more detrimental to our delicate digestive system than we would care to believe. From stress-induced changes in gastric secretion, gut motility, mucosal permeability and barrier function, visceral sensitivity, and mucosal blood flow to research findings suggesting gut microbiota responds directly to stress-related host signals.
The topic of stress and our digestive system incorporate an impressive amount of research and in-depth, published, scientific mumbo-jumbo about what reactions these stress hormones can have on our gut.
This one is kind of no brainer, more because most people who identify with feeling stressed can also identify with feeling anxious and, in more serious cases, depressed. Which one comes first is similar to the chicken or the egg scenario really, as one can set off the other, depending on the individual.
Essentially, if you often feel anxious or have depressive tendencies, try to minimise or avoid stress, and visa versa.
Did you know our immune system and our stress levels are closely linked? Those darn stress hormones, which includes our beloved cortisol, can play havoc on our immune system, resulting in chronic inflammation and reducing white blood cell count when elevated levels of these chemicals are in our bodies for long periods of time. A reduced white blood cell count (our little immune system soldiers that defend us against infections) can make us more susceptible to illnesses, and chronic inflammation alone has a host of negative side effects.
Stress and its links to the development of type 2 diabetes have been around for a while, but were particularly examined when a man from the UK who was healthy, not overweight, and partook in moderate exercise (read: he did everything right!) developed type 2 diabetes. His doctors examined his lifestyle and found that he had experienced a series of unfortunate and extremely stressful life events in the 12 months prior to his diagnosis.
Some scientists believe that cortisol may affect our bodies sensitivity to insulin and they are unsure if high levels of cortisol could actually cause type 2 diabetes or merely be a contributing factor. In 2013, a study in Sweden found that men who reported permanent stress had a 45% higher risk of developing diabetes, compared to men who reported to had no or periodic stress. Studies examining soldiers returning from war also found interesting links between PTSD and the development of type 2 diabetes.
As we all know by now, when our bodies are experiencing stress, we release chemicals referred to as stress hormones, and the one that affects allergies is called histamine. While stress does not directly cause allergies, for those who do suffer from them, stress can make the symptoms far worse thanks to the release of this stress hormone.
Just another reason why keeping our stress levels down to a manageable level, especially during situations or even times of the year when you know your allergies are at their worst.
So try that free meditation class, take some time to sit and breathe for 10 minutes or take yourself off for a walk. Do whatever works for you to minimise those moments of stress. Your body and mind will thank you.