The world around us is full of potential stressors. As humans, we have the choice to become that stress or to choose peace. With increasing demands and deadlines, it has become obvious that many Americans cannot escape stress in their everyday lives. For this reason, it has been estimated that 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are due to stress-related problems and concerns. Below I will explain the Top 10 Diseases Linked with Stress as a Major Factor and then explain how you have the power to change your reaction to stress and therefore change your disease.
Our body has an innate mechanism that turns on certain neurotransmitters and hormones when we we’re facing potentially stressful events. These mechanisms allow us to do what needs to be done to manage stress and the situation at hand.
For instance, if you’re in a grocery store with your child and you see that something on a shelf is about to fall on them, your adrenaline will kick in and you’ll react reflexively to the situation. Situational stressors trigger an immediate response in your body, helping you take care of it. Adrenaline surges to support your efforts; blood flows away from your digestive track toward your extremities. Your pupils dilate; you take on an animal-like state of readiness in an instant and your body does what it needs to do.
I love the book “Why Zebras get Ulcers”, linked above. It gives us such a great explanation into why stress so profoundly affects humans and not animals. When animals see a predator, their stress mechanisms kick into gear, propelling them into “fight or flight.” Whether they flee or fight, after the event, they rapidly return to their normal baseline state. By contrast, when humans experience a stressor, we hang on to both the memory and anxiety; we have trouble returning to our normal state.
Many people live in a chronic state of stress due to family, work and financial issues. We are a society that takes pride is being busy and leading lives where stress drives us. When the body is in a stressful state, it cannot create health, leaving us vulnerable to disease.
The Chemistry of the Stress Response
When we’re stressed, hormones are released from the adrenal glands. Epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol (a steroid) all play a role in the stress response. Unfortunately, when these chemicals remain in the body for extended periods of time, disease can result. Here are the top 10 diseases that have stress as a major contributor:
- Weakened immune system. High cortisol in the body suppresses the immune system, lowers white blood cell count, and halts the body’s protective systems until the stressor has passed. Except, when we are frequently stressed, our immune system stays shut down. With the immune system compromised, the body is open to intruders and illnesses.
- Diabetes. Hormones released during stress tell the body to break down glycogen and release glucose into the blood stream. Stress raises blood glucose levels because your body is requesting energy to survive. At the same time, cortisol antagonizes insulin so your body cannot effectively process the elevated blood sugar. This causes chronically elevated blood sugar, which can lead to pre-diabetes and diabetes.
- Osteoporosis. Cortisol also interferes with absorption of calcium from the digestive track and signals the body to pull calcium from the bones. Over time, bone density is lost, which could lead to osteoporosis. Elevated blood sugar levels will also cause a loss of calcium in the urine causing even more of a deficiency in the body.
- Digestive issues. Your blood flows from your digestive track when you’re stressed, since the functions of the digestive track are not needed during a stressful event. Over time, being in a chronically stressed state can lead to decreased function of the GI tract. In addition, many of us eat while in a stressed state, for example, while working or in front of a TV. This can create even more problems, since our digestive tracts are not primed for digestion when stressed.
- Obesity. While your digestive system shuts down and your body breaks down fat for energy when stressed, afterward, the body reacts by telling you to eat to replenish what you’ve lost. With chronic stress, the body keeps increasing appetite, which causes you to eat more. In addition, excess blood sugar created during stress is stored as fat. The abdomen is most common place this excess fat is deposited, as it is abundant with cortisol receptors.
- Depression/Anxiety. More stress equals decreased ability to cope with the future stressors, which can manifest as mood issues such as anxiety and depression. When you are stressed, you react more quickly to life situations, which can lead to feeling more negative, frustrated or scared on a regular basis.
- Aging/Menopause. Cortisol and another hormone, DHEA, are both released from the adrenals. DHEA and cortisol need to be in balance within the body. High cortisol tends to mean low DHEA, and vice-versa. DHEA is well known for it’s anti-aging effects and is a precursor to all hormones in the body. As women enter menopause, female organs produce less hormones and the DHEA from the adrenals takes over. If you are chronically stressed, and therefore your DHEA is low due to elevated cortisol levels, this can accelerate the aging process and create worsened menopausal symptoms.
- Heart disease. As blood flow increases during stress, blood pressure increases, and the body’s demand on the heart increases. Stress also releases triglycerides into the blood stream. Chronically elevated blood pressure, heart rate and triglycerides increase the chances of heart disease in the future.
- Hypo-thyroidism. The adrenals and thyroid have a very close connection. As one is depleted, very often, so is the other. Chronic stress lowers the brain’s signal to the thyroid gland to make thyroid hormone, by depressing the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Chronic stress also reduces the conversion of T4 and T3, or in other words, causes less active thyroid hormone to be created.
- Headaches. A body in chronic stress tends to be hypersensitive to pain, which can lead to chronic headaches or other pains. Migraines have also been linked to chronic release of epinephrine and noepinephrine during stress. This explains why for many, stressful events often trigger migraines.
While we may not have control over many of the stressors we experience, we do have control over how we deal with them, or react to them. Whether running late, being cut off in traffic or getting stressed at work, mindset counts. Pause for a moment and breathe; schedule breaks, vacations, self-care, and time to do things that relax you – your body is begging you to do so. Connect with effective tools to manage stress, and you’ll enjoy a much healthier and happier life going forward and you will prevent many of these diseases from affecting you.