How many saber-toothed tigers have tried to maul you to death today? Hopefully, the stressors in your life don’t involve an apex predator chasing you through the bush, as was the case for our cavemen ancestors. Still, stress affects us the same way it did them. We are wired for stress physiologically much the same way we were millennia ago, with our primordial fight-or-flight response within us keeping us alert and safe.
Though not all stress is bad, we need a break from bad stressors, otherwise our health may begin to deteriorate.
Modern humans battle bad stressors that might not seem like a fight-or-flight scenario — staying in an unhealthy or challenging relationship with a partner; financial hardships; job dissatisfaction; drug and alcohol abuse; nagging in-laws — all this distress may cause the body to:
- Elevate blood pressure
- Increase heart rate
- Slow down digestion and metabolism
- Flood the bloodstream with chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol
- Tense up muscles
Have a white-knuckle commute on the freeway to work every morning? Though you might not have to flee your car and run, the same chemical cocktails are coursing through your body as the caveman’s.
The link between stress and heart disease isn't totally clear, says the American Heart Association, but being under chronic stress can affect blood pressure and heart rate, which can lead to heart issues. It can also cause many people to "manage" their stress with unhealthy behaviors — like drinking and smoking — that can affect heart health.
Several studies have found links between stress and heart health. Most recently, a 2019 study of siblings in Sweden looked at nearly 137,000 people with stress-related disorders compared to more than 170,000 of their brothers and sisters. Researchers found that the participants who had a stress disorder had significantly higher rates of heart problems — including heart attacks, cardiac arrest and blood clots — compared to their siblings, who had similar upbringings and genetic makeup, but no anxiety disorders.
Earlier research has shown that people who report high levels of stress — whether due to work or personal reasons — are at higher risk of heart attacks over the course of their lives.
Cortisol is one of those chemicals. Like adrenaline, it helps us deal with stress, but too much of it can be harmful to the body.
Young adults and middle-aged people who experience stress on a regular basis may experience memory loss before they turn 50. An October 2018 study shows the people with high levels of cortisol have impaired memory compared to people with average cortisol levels. These people experience impaired memory years before they show symptoms of long-term memory loss.
Researchers studied 2,231 people with an average age of 49 who didn't suffer from dementia. Their memory and thinking skills and blood samples were tested eight years apart, and those with higher levels of cortisol scored lower on the test and MRI scans showed they even had smaller brain volume.
"Our research detected memory loss and brain shrinkage in middle-aged people before symptoms started to show, so it's important for people to find ways to reduce stress, such as getting enough sleep, engaging in moderate exercise, incorporating relaxation techniques into their daily lives, or asking their doctor about their cortisol levels and taking a cortisol-reducing medication if needed," study author Dr. Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugu of Harvard Medical School. "It's important for physicians to counsel all people with higher cortisol levels."
Research has linked coritsol to body fat storage around the abdomen. In turn, piling on the pounds around the belly can lead to heart disease.
Excessive cortisol flooding the bloodstream can lead to adrenal exhaustion. Some doctors believe that adrenal exhaustion (think: someone who is constantly tired) is the main culprit behind every chronic disease. Dr. Lawrence Wilson isn't alone in thinking that the mainstream medical profession often fails to recognize adrenal burnout as a real health concern.
WebMD reports that 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are stress-related, but in its assessment of stress on the body, nowhere does it mention adrenal fatigue due to excess cortisol, which is sometimes referred to as “the stress hormone.”
Failing to cope with bad stress, and thus severely fatiguing the adrenal glands (which rest over the kidneys), has a domino effect on the body’s many functions, including:
- Hormonal (hormonal pathways can be disrupted)
- Musculoskeletal (you won’t burn fat as efficiently and gain muscle)
- Immune (adrenal fatigue from bad stress wreaks havoc on the immune system)
- Digestive (bad stress slows digestion, chronic digestion problems may arise)
- Cardiovascular (adrenal fatigue can lead to heart palpitations and other problems)
People who suffer long-term stress may also be more prone to obesity, according to a 2017 study from University College London. The research, which involved examining hair samples for levels of cortisol and was published in the journal Obesity, showed that exposure to higher levels of cortisol over several months is associated with being more heavily, and more persistently, overweight.
While stress and weight long have been thought to go hand-in-hand (think stress eating and comfort foods), this study confirms the link by examining long-term cortisol levels in more than 2,500 men and women over a four-year period.
"People who had higher hair cortisol levels also tended to have larger waist measurements, which is important because carrying excess fat around the abdomen is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and premature death," Dr Sarah Jackson (UCL Epidemiology and Public Health) who led the research, said in a press release. "Hair cortisol is a relatively new measure which offers a suitable and easily obtainable method for assessing chronically high levels of cortisol concentrations in weight research and may therefore aid in further advancing understanding in this area."
Weakened immune system
As if mounting bills and a tenuous marriage weren’t enough stress to make your blood vessels dilate, your pupils enlarge, your breathing rapidly increase and your sweat glands kick into overdrive, perhaps reading that eating an unhealthy diet also plays a major role in contributing to adrenal fatigue.
How? Eating the wrong foods over many years can break down the mucosal barrier in your gut. Think of the mucosal barrier as the body’s second skin as well as the body’s first line of defense against pathogens, or unwanted nasty critters invading your gut.
Your immune system lies mostly in your gut, so if over the years you continue eating poorly, the integrity of the mucosal barrier system becomes severely compromised. In the long run, digestion is compromised. With most of your immune system residing in your gut, your immune system will weaken.
Concerned about what stress has done to your body? Seek a medical professional or alternative health practitioner who understands adrenal fatigue and knows how to restore hormonal pathways. A nutritional approach to battling stress should also be applied.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published in September 2011.