The Physical Dangers of Stress
Following is a list and explanations of the physical damage stress can cause to all our different body parts.
Stress begins in the brain, with a surge of hormones causing intense alertness. In this hyped state, we cannot relax or sleep. But our minds cannot function at this extreme level for prolonged periods: Eventually the hormone surges and exhaustion cause tension headaches, irritability, aggression, inability to concentrate and memory loss. Unchecked stress can also trigger depression, which strikes twice as many women as men. Stress suppresses the hypothalamus, the emotion control center in our brains, curbing the production of the hormones that energize us and make us feel well. Tyrosine can be a great help to generalized mood support.
The surging hormones induced by stress improve our hearing to help us react to danger. But better hearing can actually be bad for the body: A Cornell University study concluded that even moderate noise elevates heart damaging stress hormones. Studies have also shown that a lot of small noisy stressors added together -- honking horns, ringing telephones and loud co-workers -- can be more dangerous to the body than one major stressful event.
One of the first things we do when we feel stressed is hyperventilate. It is part of the body's fight-or-flight response -- in case we are in danger and need the extra oxygen in our bloodstream to run for cover. Those quick breaths can cause dizziness and sharp pains in the diaphragm. Sever stress can aggravate asthma and other dangerous respiratory conditions.
The adrenaline rush from stress dilates the eyes, improving vision. But it also triggers eye ticks because eye muscles become fatigued. Eyes may bulge if stress over-stimulates the thyroid gland.
Dry mouth, bad breath and difficulty swallowing occur when stress makes us take short, shallow breaths. Under constant stress, some people clench their jaws or grind their teeth.
Considered a barometer of inner health, hair is often the first to suffer. A body under stress burns nutrients like the vitamin selenium, and that can lead to dull hair and premature graying. Chronic stress can trigger the autoimmune system to attack hair follicles, causing hair to fall out completely or in clumps.
A heart under stress pumps fast and hard. Blood pressure rises as the body produces the hormone epinephrine as well as the hormone cortisol. That can lead to heart palpitations and chest pains. In those with heart disease, stress can prevent blood from clotting properly and stimulate the formation of plaque that plugs arteries. Researchers say that even thinking about something stressful raises blood pressure. A Swedish study concluded that stressful romantic relationships were more damaging to a person's heart than work-related stress: Those in troubled marriages were three times more likely to be hospitalized for heart problems.
Did you ever get sick after a stressful event? Extreme and constant stress lowers our white blood cell count, making us more susceptible to disease and hampering our body's ability to heal itself. One study showed that the pneumonia vaccine was less effective in people under constant stress. Meanwhile, researchers are studying the link between stress and autoimmune disorders like Graves disease, in which antibodies attack the thyroid, eye muscles and skin.
Joints, Muscles and Bones
At tense moments, our brain sends messages to the muscles, tightening them and preparing them for action. Chronic stress can aggravate rheumatoid arthritis, cause sore muscles and make us prone to sprains.
Stress causes hormones to be released that make acne, rashes and itchy patches worse. Some people blush, while others go pale when the small blood cells in the skin contract. Under extreme stress, people can become covered in hives. Any skin problem will get worse when you are under stress.
Under stress, the brain shifts blood flow away from the digestive tract, which slows digestion. The result: indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, incontinence and colon spasm. Stress increases acid production, aggravating ulcers. It is also linked to colitis and irritable bowel syndrome, a painful and sometimes debilitating disorder. For mild cases or temporary stressful situations, a supplement such as Acidophilus can be of great help.
Tips from stress experts:
Exercise. Just 40 to 60 minutes three times a week triggers hormones that relax the body and boost the immune system. Try yoga -- many doctors are so sure it relieves stress they send patients with high blood pressure to classes.
Watch your diet. Stress elevates blood insulin levels, so you will be hungry. Avoid sweets, which will only raise insulin levels higher and make you hungrier. Eat food high in protein during the day to keep you satisfied and alert. Fruits and vegetables will help counter stress effects on skin and hair, while dairy products protect bones.
Chill out. Allot three hours on the weekend for chores, then go have fun. Massage, meditation and breathing exercises relieve tension. Take up crossword puzzles, or play card games to distract you from stress while stimulating you mentally.
See also: Mind Over Matter