By Lisa Nickchen, Editorial Contributor
The brain’s response to acute stress is amazing, triggering a series of instinctive reactions to ready the body for fight — or flight. And when the perceived danger or threat passes, stress hormones go back to normal levels, and your body returns to normal function.
But when stressors are constant or long-term, the stress-response system stays on and can negatively affect most body processes. Our bodies are designed to handle occasional acute stress, but not for long, says Dr. Charles Lerner, an internal medicine physician with Orlando Health Physician Associates. Chronic stress can take a serious toll on our physical and psychological health.
Dr. Lerner cites these as the most common health problems caused by chronic stress:
- Cardiovascular Disease: With acute stress, changes to heart and blood vessel functions serve an immediate, but temporary, need. Chronic stress, however, can lead to structural and irreversible changes. Your body may think it needs to maintain a faster heart rate and high blood pressure, and the heart muscles can become thicker. That, together with constant elevated levels of stress hormones, can take a toll, putting you at increased risk for heart attack, stroke and heart failure. Long-term stress also causes immune changes that can lead to atherosclerosis — the build-up of fatty substances in arteries — an underlying source of cardiac disease.
- Muscle Pain: Sudden stress causes the body’s muscles to tense up to protect against injury and pain. When that stress ends, muscle tension is released. Chronic stress can stimulate the muscles to remain in a state of readiness, and when muscles are tight and tense for long periods of time, it can worsen existing muscular conditions or cause new muscle pain. That constant tension can lead to back pain and myalgia, and both tension and migraine headaches are associated with chronic muscle tension in the shoulders, neck and head.
- Gastrointestinal: For any who have experienced it, there is no doubt that acute stress affects the digestive system and can cause stomach pain, nausea and even diarrhea. Chronic stress can affect the motility of the gastrointestinal system, including how fast food moves through and what nutrients are absorbed in the intestines, and can lead to chronic constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, reflux or bloating as well as severe stomach pain or ulcers.
- Endocrine Disorders: In response to the release of stress hormones, the liver produces more glucose (blood sugar) to provide energy needed for a fight-or-flight reaction. For most, the body is able to reabsorb any extra blood sugar, even with repeated stresses. But for some, especially those vulnerable to type 2 diabetes, all that extra blood sugar can lead to diabetes. There is also evidence that chronic stress can destroy beta cells in the pancreas, causing type 1 diabetes.
- Immune, Inflammatory and Infectious Disorders: Research shows that chronic stress can lead to immune dysregulation, resulting in low-grade inflammation, delayed wound healing, poor response to vaccines and increased susceptibility to infections. It also can worsen existing infections and viruses. Allergies and autoimmune diseases may be exacerbated.
Because stress can affect the regulation of inflammation, conditions such as asthma, inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis may intensify. The inflammatory response also makes it harder to fight off infections, making symptoms worse.
Concerned that stress has affected your heart, digestive system or immune system? Locate a specialist at OrlandoHealth.com/Physician-Finder.