We all know that stress can cause headaches, sickness, even heart attacks but did you know that stress can be the hidden culprit for many other health concerns and conditions? While we throw the word around a lot, "I'm so stressed!" it's important to realize how it can affect our mind and bodies.
Stress is really a stealth killer, says Michael T. Irvin RN, healthcare consultant and author in New York, NY. "Unlike that hamburger that gave you an upset stomach, stress is something that can linger on for years and years to come. It can cause ulcers, psychosomatic conditions such as tiredness malaise which lead to depression, which can lead to even more serious health conditions and eventually to an early death. That is if it is not dealt with properly."
Most people try to bury stress, explains Irvin and this actually works for most people. The reason that it works is that humans are genetically equipped to deal with stress. We often avoid dealing with stress, we grow stronger and as time passes the factors that caused the stress are no longer present. Thus, we survive. Yet Irvin advises that no matter how strong we are emotionally, we are not actually genetically equipped for the types of stress factors that we are now facing. ^1
Think you know the effects of stress? Here are some lesser known ways it can wreak havoc:
Weight Gain: Stress is associated with a wide variety of medical issues, including obesity, says Jay Winner, M.D., author of Take the Stress Out of Your Life and Director of the Stress Management Program for Sansum Clinic, the largest medical clinic in Santa Barbara, CA. With chronic stress, cortisol levels rise leading to deposition of fat around the abdomen (visceral fat). This is the same fat that is associated with an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease. Also, stressed people may eat more and studies have shown that women under chronic stress tend to have poorer food choices -- in other words, they are more likely to eat junk food.^2
Poor Digestion: According to Nancy Guberti, MS, CN, Functional Medicine Specialist from Greenwich CT, stress shuts down digestion by affecting every part of the digestion process and many then get bloated from the food sitting there. The gut is the seat of human emotions and neurotransmitters are also affected. The fight or flight mode is the response in your CNS (central nervous system) , digestion shuts down, contracts digestive muscles and decreases secretions necessary for digesting foods. Inflammation can occur along with infection. One can get nauseous, diarrhea, constipated and acidic taste in mouth. Your gut and brain and immune functioning are all connected so stress can affect all three.^3
Pre-Mature Aging: "Stress can prematurely age you," says Paula Davis-Laack, CEO of the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute in Milwaukee, WI. "Research continues to show that stress ages us down to the cellular level. Our chromosomes are capped by telomeres, which look like the plastic tips on the ends of your shoelaces. The function of telomeres is to keep your DNA safe. Telomere shortening can serve as a biomarker of aging, and high levels of chronic stress correlate with telomere shortening.^4, ^5 Translation: Wrinkles!
Bad Decisions: "A less obvious one is that stress interferes with our ability to make good decisions:," says Stephen Balzac, psychology professor at the Wentworth Institute of Technology and president of 7 Steps Ahead, a management consulting firm. "We become more reactive and less able to consider longer-term consequences. Under stress, we tend to crave sweets and salty snacks, with all the problems associated with that sort of diet. We become more distractible, and hence need to spend increasing amounts of time and energy trying to get our jobs done, which, in turn, increases our stress." Balzac says stress also reduces creativity and even our ability to work with others; indeed, stress in a work setting can set off a vicious cycle of non-cooperation and conflict, leading to more stress.^6
Sources not cited or linked to above:
^1 Michael T. Irvin RN (link opens in new window) , healthcare consultant and author in New York, NY
^2 Jay Winner, M.D., author of Take the Stress Out of Your Life (link opens in new window) and Director of the Stress Management Program for Sansum Clinic, the largest medical clinic in Santa Barbara, CA
^3 Nancy Guberti (link opens in new window), MS, CN, Functional Medicine Specialist from Greenwich CT
^4 Paula Davis-Laack (link opens in new window), CEO of the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute in Milwaukee, WI
^5 Kiefer, A., Lin, J., Blackburn, E., & Epel, E. (2008). Dietary restraint and telomere length in pre-and post-menopausal women. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70(8), 845-849
^6 Stephen Balzac, psychology professor at the Wentworth Institute of Technology and president of 7 Steps Ahead (link opens in new window), a management consulting firm
This material is intended for informational use only and should not be construed as medical advice or used in place of consulting a licensed medical professional. You should consult with your doctor.
By Janene Mascarella
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