The Harmful Effects of Chronic Stress

stressed mature woman

Everyone has a stress set point. In other words, your early childhood events imprint your corticotropin-releasing hormone, the peptide hormone involved in the stress response, at a certain level. This set point, or the programming in the emotional brain, determines how you typically react to stressors.

Although this programming can feel as though its ingrained for life, it can be changed over time with dedicated practices that alter or counter the stress response (more on those later). This is good news because chronic stress lands at the top of the list of the absolute worst toxins. Frequent or prolonged stress, which alters the mind and body’s overall homeostasis—physical and chemical balance—can cause a host of harmful effects on your health and well-being. The following point to just a handful of them.

Inflammation and Disease

The physical effects of stress start with decreasing the body’s lymphocytes, which are the white blood cells that help ward off infection. Low lymphocyte levels are a sign of a weakened immune system, inflammation, and viruses.

The body also produces the hormone cortisol, a.k.a. the stress hormone, when it’s under duress. Too much cortisol can cause inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s first response against toxins, infections, and injuries. It’s not a bad thing if it stops there. However, chronic inflammation is the gateway to many major diseases, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression.

Depression

Mitochondria, which are organelles that take in and break down nutrients in your cells, produce adenosine triphosphate, which is the complex energy currency in your cells and organs. Chronic stress damages mitochondria (in mice), and mitochondria failure is linked to mental disorders such as depression. More specifically, a study published in The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry linked stress to anxiety- and aggression-driven depression.

High Blood Pressure and Heart Issues

The American Institute of Stress reports that heart attacks and sudden death increase significantly following anything that evokes fight-or-flight responses—either true emergencies, such as natural disasters, or perceived emergencies, such as a last-minute meeting with your boss about an important project. The physical effects of chronic stress can result in increased risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.

Research shows that emotional stresses, such as anger, can also trigger heart attacks and arrhythmias.

Disrupted Sleep

Growing up, if you had a rough day or if you didn’t feel well, did your mom ever tell you that everything would be better in the morning? If so, she was referring to the power of sleep. A good night of zzz’s plays a critical role in your physical, emotional, and mental health. When you’re asleep, your blood pressure has a chance to drop. Your mind resets, meaning the synapses—or connections—in the brain shrink, allowing new growth and new connections to be made the next day. And your emotional mind returns to a less-reactive, more neutral state.

The physical effects of stress can result in sleep disorders such as insomnia, which affects the overall quality of sleep. Insomnia makes it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep every night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, kidney disease, diabetes, and many other diseases or health challenges.

Not all cases of insomnia or sleeplessness are caused by stress. However, if you can align your difficulties in falling and staying asleep to when stressors started impacting your life, stress may be the culprit. If it is, normally this form of insomnia will go away on its own without medical intervention once the stress has lifted.  

Lower Bone Mineral Density

Higher stress levels have been linked to lower bone mineral density in post-menopausal women. That can lead to an increased risk of osteoporosis, which literally means “porous bone.” Osteoporosis causes bones to become so brittle that a fall or doing something as simple as bending over or coughing can cause a fracture.

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Decreased Memory and Adrenal Burnout

Heightened and prolonged stress can damage critical sections of the brain, such as the hippocampus, which belongs to the limbic system and is responsible for memory. Stress reduces overall hippocampal volume. After prolonged periods of high stress levels, some people experience the symptoms of “adrenal fatigue,” which isn’t recognized as a medical diagnosis. Rather, it’s a term found on many alternative health care websites that’s used to describe when the brain shuts off the endocrine glands that produce hormones, including adrenaline, as a way to “save” itself from further stress. Some of the symptoms people note as being associated with adrenal fatigue are body aches, fatigue, lightheadedness, unexplained weight loss, and more.

Digestive Challenges

The brain and gut are in constant communication. As a result, the gastrointestinal (GI) system is highly vulnerable when it comes to emotions and stress. Stress sends signals for chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol to be released. In excess, these hormones alter immune system responses and suppress the digestive system.

Stress can reduce blood and oxygen flow to the stomach, and cause an imbalance in healthy gut bacteria and inflammation. If not quelled, these things can lead to GI disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, and irritable bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease, or peptic ulcers.   

Lower Sex Drive

Sex can simply be a much-needed physical release. But this physical activity is also about deep intimacy. Sex is an important part of overall well-being and satisfaction in romantic relationships.

Depression and anxiety, which can both be caused by stress, can lower your urge to have sex and, therefore, not only interfere with a healthy sex life, but also your relationship overall. A healthy sex life isn’t necessarily linked to the quantity; it’s about quality—truly enjoying it, no matter the frequency. In fact, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University showed that frequency wasn’t the X factor when it comes to sexual satisfaction. They assigned some couples to have more sex than others, and they observed each group’s happiness over a three-month span. The couples who had more sex said the increase in quantity didn’t make them happier, in part, because it led to a decline in sexual desire and enjoyment. 

Your biggest sex organ is your brain. If you’re unhappy, anxious, or distracted during sex, it likely won’t elicit a positive, stress-decreasing outcome. Because, yes, just as much as stress can reduce sexual desire, having sex can also reduce stress. Sex amps up the production of the “the reward hormone,” dopamine, and the “love hormone,” oxytocin. During orgasm, oxytocin is released from the brain and it’s joined by the release of endorphins, which are natural pain-killing hormones.

How to Better Manage Stress

Although stress is part of life and you can’t completely eliminate it for good (nor would you want to do so), there are ways to keep stress in check so it doesn’t wreak havoc on your body and life. Here are five tips to consider for stress management:

  1. Get moving: Doing regular aerobic activities, like swimming, biking, jogging, or peddling it out on the elliptical machine at the gym burn up cortisol (as shown in rats). Yoga creates a similar effect with an added bonus: it incorporates meditation and mindfulness training.
  2. Meditate: Meditation is largely about focusing on the breath. Taking a few deep breaths engages the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the body and prompts the nervous system to lower blood pressure, slow heart rate, and decrease cortisol.
  3. Laugh more: American psychiatrist William Fry has studied the benefits of laughter for more than three decades. In his research, he has found links between laughter, lowered stress-hormone levels, and improved heart health.
  4. Spend more time on positive relationships: An 80-year Harvard study directed by psychiatrist Robert Waldinger revealed that one thing makes most people happier than anything else: good relationships. Positive, close-knit bonds with family, friends, or a romantic partner prove to be vital for your physical and mental health at every age. Human connectivity and physical touch relax the parasympathetic nervous system, which “slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.”
  5. Talk with a health care practitioner or licensed psychologist: If your stress leaves you feeling overwhelmed, unable to cope, using drugs or alcohol to cope, or having suicidal thoughts, seek out professional help. Make an appointment with your health care practitioner or a licensed psychologist. If you’re in crisis and need immediate support or intervention, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org. Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Stress doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, a permanent state. There are ways—such as the above ideas and more—to ease it. First, tune in to your body and acknowledge that you feel stressed, take note of how long you’ve felt this way, and then try to identify the source so you know the best next step to take.

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.


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About the Author

Nicole Leatherman

Nutrition Writer and Editor
Nicole believes in the Hippocratic philosophy, “Let food be thy medicine,” and her passion is creating content that helps others learn about self-healing through eating real foods and living an intentionally balanced life. When she isn’t writing or editing, she spends time in the yoga studio, on the mountain trails in Colorado, and in the kitchen creating recipes packed with nutrient-rich foods. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and has been a professional writer and editor for more than 15 years.Read more