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Most Common Stress-Related Health Problems

min read

By Rachel Despres

Medically Reviewed by Greg Dorter, RP

Stress is a feeling most everyone is familiar with. While it may sometimes serve a helpful purpose, such as pushing us beyond preconceived physical and mental boundaries, it is most commonly associated with negative factors.

These include causes such as pressure or unhappiness at work, and other elements of life such as money, divorce, or the death of a loved one. If such stress can’t be managed properly and persists on a long-term basis, it can lead to more serious health problems—including the following seven.

Heart Problems

Although scientists have long suspected that stress contributes to an increased risk of heart attacks and heart disease, only recently has it become clear exactly how they are linked.

In a study out of Harvard Medical School, researchers discovered that in blood samples from people enduring high levels of stress there was “a surplus of disease-fighting white blood cells,” which has been found to cause hardening of the arteries. Additionally, WebMD says stress can “directly increase heart rate and blood flow, and causes the release of cholesterol and triglycerides into the bloodstream.”

Obesity

As with heart problems, medical professionals have suspected for many years that stress may be a contributing factor for obesity, which they have now found evidence to support. One factor is that stress causes us to reach for carb-heavy foods, and these foods increase the body’s serotonin level. This chemical releases feel-good properties, causing us to (literally) feed the cycle.

Chronic stress has also been found to cause the body to produce excess cortisol, “a hormone critical in managing fat storage and energy use in the human body,” defines EverydayHealth.com. The source adds that it is also “known to increase appetite and may encourage cravings for sugary or fatty foods.”

Diabetes

Although stress doesn’t necessarily cause diabetes, it can certainly worsen the condition if not managed properly. Healthline explains that this is because, “Stress hormones in your body may directly affect glucose levels.”

When enduring mental stress, the source says that those with type 2 diabetes can experience increased blood sugar levels, while glucose levels in those with type 1 diabetes may either increase or decrease. With physical stress, on the other hand, blood sugar levels can increase for people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

Depression

Experiencing stress on a chronic basis contributes to a variety of different changes within the brain, including the imbalance of neurotransmitter systems such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.

According to AARP, such imbalances can “negatively affect mood, appetite, sleep and libido.” And, in some cases of serious depression, the source says that people may have “permanently elevated cortisol levels, which can eventually alter the hippocampus and permanently damage brain cells.”

Gastrointestinal Problems

There are many strong links between stress and digestion issues. EverydayHealth.com explains that when you are stressed, “the ‘flight or fight’ response in your central nervous system” becomes activated. As a result, “…digestion can shut down because your central nervous system shuts down.”

Additionally, the source says, “Stress can cause inflammation of the gastrointestinal system,” making you more likely to contract infections. And while stress may not be the cause of other digestion-related conditions such as ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and Crohn’s disease, it is considered to be a contributing factor that can worsen these issues.

Sleep Issues

Most everyone has experienced a sleepless night due to stress, whether about family problems, work-related issues, or otherwise. Older adults, in particular, who already experience less sleep and increased interruptions throughout the night, may be especially affected.

The AARP says, “Stress may aggravate these sleep deficits, making it especially hard for older people to get back to sleep when they wake up at night,” which then further impacts their ability to handle the stress of the day to day.

Dementia

Although research has not yet proven conclusive, the Alzheimer’s Society explains “There are many logical reasons why stress could be linked to dementia.” One such reason is that stress compromises the body’s immune system, which the source says “is known to play an important role in the development of dementia.”

Another reason is that stress causes the release of a hormone known as cortisol, which “has been linked to problems with memory.” And, as previously mentioned, there is a strong connection between stress and depression, a factor that has been linked to an increased risk of dementia.

RP, Registered Psychotherapist

Greg has a master's degree in counselling psychology and is a registered psychotherapist in Ontario where he's been practicing with individuals and couples for 15 years. He specializes in evidence-based treatments such as CBT and mindfulness, and produces a variety of online self-help content you can find on (youtube.com/c/MBCTOnline) and twitter (@GregDorter).

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