We live in a hyped-up, caffeinated, digitized, 24/7, corporations-are-people kind of world. Along with the miracles of computers, smartphones and unfettered capitalism comes — surprise!—non-stop stress. On average, working professionals are connected to their jobs 72 hours a week. And science is discovering that along with non-stop stress comes disease.
As human beings evolved, our reactions to stressful situations, the so-called fight-or-flight reaction, helped us survive. But most of us are no longer encountering wild predators as we compete for a warm cave in which to spend the night. The rush of adrenaline and cortisol released by stress helped our ancestors remain alert, strong and fast enough to survive life-or-death situations. In some cases, we benefit from this hormonal release, which can help us in dangerous traffic situations, potential muggings or just a final college exam.
But we are finding out that in our ever more stressful dog-eat-dog economy, the stress reactions that were occasional in the past are becoming more constant. Instead of occasional jolts of adrenaline and cortisol, we are bombarded with constant releases. While there are consequences for too much adrenaline in the body, the more worrisome hormone is cortisol. In normal doses, cortisol is good for the body. It reduces inflammation. However, too much cortisol and the body’s cells become desensitized, and the result is that inflammation runs rampant. Increasingly, science is finding that inflammation is the cause of many of our most common chronic illnesses, damaging blood vessels and brain cells, leading to insulin resistance and subsequent diabetes, and promoting joint disease like arthritis.
Here’s the latest on eight health problems that are worsened by stress.
1. Heart disease
It has been suspected for decades that stress and heart disease are linked, and recent studies have further pinpointed the connection. In a study by Harvard Medical School’s Matthias Nahrendorf, blood samples taken from medical students who were under a high level of stress were found to possess higher levels of white blood cells than normal. Previous studies had shown that cortisol transformed the texture of white blood cells, making them more likely to stick to the walls of blood vessels. The resultant plaque was a key marker for hardening of the arteries.
2. Common cold
A study was done in 2012 on 276 healthy people all under different levels of stress. After interviewing the subjects on their stress levels, all were exposed to a cold virus and then quarantined for several days. Thirty-nine percent of the subjects developed a cold. Statistically, those with higher levels of stress were twice as likely to fall ill as those who were not so stressed. "Stressed people's immune cells become less sensitive to cortisol," said the author of the study, Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. "They're unable to regulate the inflammatory response, and therefore, when they're exposed to a virus, they're more likely to develop a cold."
3. Weight gain
Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a psychiatry professor at Ohio State University’s College of Medicine, conducted a study that showed a link between stress and weight gain. Although it may seem obvious that people under stress might strive to alleviate it by grabbing that extra candy bar, the study went beyond that to show that stress affects the metabolism itself. Women in the study were all fed similar fast-food meals. In the next seven hours the rate of their metabolism was studied. Women who had had one or more stressful events in the previous 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than the women who were stress-free. Although this metabolic rate was seemingly negligible, 104 calories over a year would result in a weigh gain of 11 pounds. The study also showed that stress produced a rise in insulin levels and a reduction in the oxidation of fat in the body, a process that promotes fat storage.
4. Slower healing
A different study by Kiecolt-Glaser showed the relationship between stress and the rate of healing. Women who were caregiving for relatives with dementia took 10 days longer to heal from a biopsy incision than women in a control group who were not caregivers. The study reported that the longer the stress continued, the longer it took for the healing to occur. Additionally, it showed that caregivers who had a network of friends and family to support them had a faster healing rate than those who did not.
5. Sleep dysfunction
As we get older, sleeping patterns often change and we may experience a decrease in the amount of deep sleep we get. This results in an increase in the number of times we may wake up at night. Stress compounds this natural process by making it more difficult to fall back asleep once awake. This in turn leads to sleep deprivation, shown to cause memory lapses and lack of emotional control, leading to a further cycle of stress and sleep deprivation. The level of cortisol in the system is thought to be a factor in nighttime wakefulness.
Depression is an illness all its own. However, stress can often cause depression. The prevailing belief is that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance of the brain’s neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Stressful situations can trigger such an imbalance in the brain, and continued stress can cause permanent changes in cortisol levels, damaging brain cells and the hippocampus until the brain itself is physically altered.
7. Back, neck and shoulder pain
It’s no surprise that with all of modern society’s dependence on computers and smartphones, and the amount of time we spend hunched over them, we have a virtual epidemic of back issues, neck strains and shoulder pain. What is surprising is that stress seems to intensify the pain. People in stressful workplaces seem particularly vulnerable to these afflictions, and they last longer than in non-workplace environments. Researchers have theorized that constant workplace stress and the resulting inflammation prevents the muscles from fully healing.
8. Ulcers (and other digestive tract diseases)
In 1983, an Australian study showed that stomach ulcers, which researchers once attributed to stress alone, were actually caused by a specific bacterium. This was not the end of the story, however, for it has subsequently been shown that 15% of ulcer sufferers are not infected by the bacteria, and even in those infected, only 10% actually get ulcers. Although a precise reason for this has not been discerned yet, one theory is that stress suppresses the immune system and allows the ulcer bacteria to multiply. Another theory posits that stress actually changes the balance of gut bacteria, suppressing good bacteria and allowing the bad to thrive. In addition to ulcers, most experts agree that stress plays a major factor in such digestive tract illnesses as Crohn’s disease, colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.
There are many strategies to ward off stress. An old saying goes, “The mark of a successful man is one who has spent an entire day on the bank of a river without feeling guilty about it.” In other words, relax. Exercise, meditation, gardening, spending time with friends, setting boundaries, and limiting cellphone use have all been shown to reduce stress. And perhaps we could also listen to the words of Winston Churchill, someone who certainly knew a stressful situation: “When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”