Stress and Health – Part 1

The effects of stress on our bodies.

As human beings, we are able to handle the effects of short-term stress, commonly referred to as acute stress, and the impact it has on our body.  The “stress response” also known as “fight or flight” is activated by our bodies whenever we are faced with a real or perceived environmental stressor. According to Michigan State University Extension, this generalized physiological response to stress causes the release of several chemical hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These brain chemicals cause heart rate acceleration, increased anxiety, increased rate of metabolism and many other physical responses.  Therefore, if stress remains high for an extended period of time, an individual may be putting themselves at serious risk for a host of health problems. Most of these problems involve the body’s major systems including the cardiovascular, respiratory, immune and reproductive. In a two-part series, MSU Extension will outline the impact of stress on some of these major systems starting the cardiovascular, immune and musculoskeletal.

It is important to have a general overview of how the body’s systems are affected by worry and stress. First, let’s consider the cardiovascular system. Acute stress, like when you’re giving an important presentation can make your heart to beat faster and even cause your blood pressure to rise. Longer term stress on the heart can cause arteries to narrow and drive up cholesterol levels, increasing one’s chances of a heart attack or stroke.  Frequent stress responses of our body increase low-density lipoproteins (LDL, the "bad" form of cholesterol) and other lipid types such as triglycerides. Because stress delays the processing and clearance of these fats, their accumulation puts people at risk of developing atherosclerosis and other heart diseases (Stress and Health 2013).

Like the cardiovascular system, the immune system can fair well under short term stress. However, ongoing stress can have serious adverse health effects as cortisol actually decreases the body’s immune response. One of the problems of a weakened immune system due to stress can be greater susceptibility to infection. Other problems can include worsening skin conditions such as acne and eczema as well as increasing the time it takes for wounds to heal. Another side effect of a weakened immune system can be a decrease in the effectiveness of the medications that fight off infections. When combined, these can cause a greater susceptibility to infection.

Muscles can become tense when our bodies perceive danger in its environment like in the fight or flight response. In the short-term, tightening muscles may not cause a big problem. An example of this might be preparing for a tough exam and staying up all night to study.  However, if one was to do this long-term, tight muscles can cause upper and lower back pain and increase stress on supporting organs and muscles. It can also lead to neck and shoulder stiffness. Chronic muscle stress and tension can contribute to the development of serious disorders such as osteoporosis.

As outlined above, stress is a large factor in many health problems. In order to reduce the risk of serious physical health problems, it’s important to keep stress levels in check. For information on stress reduction and additional articles, please visit MSU Extension. The second part of this two-part series will discuss the effects of stress on the digestive, nervous, reproductive and respiratory systems.

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