Stress and Disease and Dysfunction, Oh My!


Last installment, we went over the stress response – what it is, how it works, and the unfortunate fact that it is applied to both physical and psychological stressors. This week, we’re going to look at the effects that a prolonged exposure to stress can cause. In essence, this week we’re going to answer the question “What’s so bad about being stressed out?” – besides, of course, generally feeling like crap. Stress can seem like such an average feature of life that it becomes something we just accept as normal. Hopefully by the end of this post I’ll have convinced you that stress is something worth combatting, not just accepting. So, here’s a systemic approach of what stress does to you physically.

Cardiovascular effects: Chronic stress wreaks havoc on the cardiovascular system in particular. This includes hypertension, left ventricular hypertrophy (which is the single best predictor of cardiac risk), artherosclerotic plaques, thrombosis, heart attacks, and stroke. Cardiovascular disease risk also goes up in people with Type-A personalities and clinical depression.

Gastrointestinal effects: The glucocorticoids released during periods of stress increase the storage of ingested food – they stimulate fat deposition, preferentially in the abdomen. They also block energy uptake into muscles, and can lead to chronic fatigue and diabetes. Stress can also predispose you to development of disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and ulcers.

Reproductive effects: Stress is associated with reproductive dysfunction in both males and females. Men may see erectile dysfunction (which often further increases stress) and disrupted testosterone secretion. Women may see amenorrhea (lack of menstruation), inhibited progesterone levels, miscarriages, psychogenic abortions, and preterm labor.

Immunological effects: It’s no secret that stress suppresses the immune system, but you may not know that it can increase your risk for emergence of an autoimmune disease as well.

Nervous System effects: Here’s a fun one. While you’re stressing about studying for countless exams, that prolonged stress could be inhibiting your memory. The amygdala is activated during major stressors, which can lead to disruption of hippocampal function. Stress also disconnects neural networks, inhibits new neuron development, and compromises the ability of the hippocampus to survive insults.

This is a (very) abbreviated, not well described summary of the physical effects that stress has. By now we’ve learned that stress has real-time, additive, physiologic consequences. Hopefully this has convinced you that your mental health is worth investing in! In the next installment, we’ll look at the psychological effects of stress, and later, look in to achievable, evidence-based methods of actually reducing stress.

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