How Chronic Stress Can Lead to Heart Disease, Type 2 Diabetes, & More..

Feb 14, 2019

 

You Will Learn

  • Why your body doesn't care what kind of stress you have...stress is stress.
  • Four ways stress can harm your health.
  • Three tips to manage stress.  

 

What is Stress?  

Stress is defined as a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.4  

Stress is not always bad. It is what helps us push through tough or demanding times in our lives like weddings, caring for a baby, a big exam, a new job, the list goes on.  

 

What are the Different Kinds of Stressors?  

Below are the 3 main kinds of stressors with a few examples:2  

  • Physical stressors: surgery, injury, infection, manual labor, over-exercising, fatigue
  • Metabolic stressors: chronic inflammation, hormonal imbalance, eating too much or too little
  • Psychosocial stressors: death, divorce, anxiety, tests, work, or other stressful circumstances  

Physical, mental, and emotional stress all have the same physiological response on your body. That’s because our brains can’t differentiate between something that’s a real threat and something that’s a perceived threat. No matter the stress, our bodies will go through the same response.  

Under normal circumstances, our bodies are supposed to “come back down” from the stress response.  

Short-term stressors like test anxiety do not typically result in detrimental long-term health consequences.  

On the other hand, the effects of chronic stress can contribute to serious health conditions. Research has shown a connection between stress and chronic problems like high blood pressure, obesity, and depression. One study noted chronic work stress may contribute to poor health because it is associated with poor diet, physical inactivity, and metabolic syndrome.3  

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels that occur together and increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.  

 

What Does Stress do to the Body?  

During stressful situations, insulin, epinephrine (adrenaline), glucagon, growth hormone, and cortisol play a role in blood sugar levels.  

When stressed, the body prepares itself by ensuring that enough sugar or energy is readily available. Insulin levels fall, glucagon and epinephrine levels rise, and more glucose is released from the liver.

At the same time, growth hormone and cortisol levels rise, which causes muscle and fat tissue to be less sensitive to insulin. As a result, more glucose is available in the bloodstream to be used by our muscles.  

If stress become chronic, this process leads to oxidative stress and systemic inflammation, which accelerates the aging and disease process.1 Epinephrine also causes our heart and breathing rate to rise in preparation for the “fight-or-flight” response.  

 

4 Ways Stress Can Harm Your Health  

Aches and Pains  

  • Short-term: Tense muscles that relax when the stressor is gone.
  • Long-term: Long-term muscle tension can cause headaches, back, neck, and jaw pain.  

 

Breathing  

  • Short-term: Breathing rate is faster, it returns to normal when the stressor is gone.
  • Long-term: Increased breathing rate can make underlying lung conditions like asthma or COPD worse, leading to increased shortness of breath and need for medications and/or oxygen.  

 

Heart Health  

  • Short-term: Increased pulse rate and blood pressure.
  • Long-term: Increased risk for cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and strokes.  

 

Endocrine  

  • Short-term: Hormones released to make blood sugar more available for your muscles to use in the “fight-or-flight” response.
  • Long-term: High blood sugars, insulin resistance, increased abdominal fat, and systemic inflammation leads to weight gain higher risk for type 2 diabetes.  

 

Bottom Line  

Short-term stress is a normal, unavoidable part of life. Our bodies need some stress to survive and thrive. When that stress becomes chronic (long-term), that is when it starts affecting your health. 

Long-term stress can affect several systems of your body, causing more pain, higher blood pressure, respiratory problems, and difficulty controlling your blood sugar.  

 

Action Items  

  • Set aside 10-15 minutes a day to refuel and recharge your mind. Read a good book, pray, go for a walk, meditate, exercise, talk with a friend, anything to get your mind off of whatever is stressing you out. 
  • Check your sleep habits. Are you getting enough sleep? If you aren't getting 6-8 hours of restful sleep per night, consider changing up your sleep hygiene. Try no caffeine after 12 PM, no screen time 30-60 minutes before bed, getting up at the same time each morning. Make small incremental changes to start sleeping better.  
  • Seek help when needed. If you have tried to deal with the stress on your own and it is starting to affect your relationships, work, and life, it may be time to seek help from a trusted friend or counselor. Better to deal with the stress now so you don't end up with the long-term health effects down the road.  

 

References  

1. Epel, E. Psychological and metabolic stress: A recipe for accelerated cellular aging? Hormones. 2009. 8(1):7-22

2. Explore Integrated Medicine. Defining Stress. https://exploreim.ucla.edu/mind-body/defining-stress/.

3. Mayo Clinic. Metabolic Syndrome. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/metabolic-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20351916?utm_source=Google&utm_medium=abstract&utm_content=Metabolic-syndrome&utm_campaign=Knowledge-panel.

4. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stress.

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