How stress can take a toll on your body in the long term

How stress can take a toll on your body in the long term

Stress is a natural reaction to life experiences. Everyone experiences stress from time to time and anything can trigger it (everyday responsibilities, work and family, a new diagnosis, the death of a loved one…).

Your body’s response to stress can be beneficial in the immediate short-term, especially if the stressor is a physical threat. This response helps you cope with potentially serious situations by releasing hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates and ready your muscles to respond (so-called “fight or flight”).

Your central nervous system (CNS) is in charge of this response. In your brain, the hypothalamus tells your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol (also known as the stress hormones). These hormones increase heart rate and send blood rushing to the areas that need it most during emergency situations, namely the muscles and the heart.

When the “danger” is gone, the hypothalamus should tell all systems to go back to normal. However, if the CNS fails to return to normal and these responses are persistent, day after day, this becomes chronic stress. It can cause a variety of symptoms, including:

  • irritability
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • headaches
  • insomnia

If you have to live with these symptoms in the long term, it could put your health at serious risk.

Immune system

Improving your immune system

When it comes to “fight or flight”, stress can be enormously beneficial for the immune system. The stimulation from stress can help you avoid infections and heal wounds.

That said, over prolonged periods, stress hormones will weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s response. This is why people experiencing chronic stress are much more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections.

Stress can also prolong recovery time.

Respiratory and cardiovascular systems

Stress hormones also have negative effects on your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. This is primarily because you breathe faster to distribute oxygen-rich blood to your body quickly. As a result, if you already have a breathing problem (like asthma), stress can make it even harder to breathe.

Similarly, stress makes your heart pump faster. Stress hormones also raise your blood pressure because it causes your blood vessels to constrict in order to divert more oxygen to your muscles for greater strength. Frequent or chronic stress therefore will make your heart work too hard for too long, increasing the risk of having a stroke or heart attack.

Digestive system

If you’re under chronic stress, you’re at much higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This is because your body may not be able to keep up with the extra glucose surge that your liver produces because of that stress.

Heartburn, acid reflux and stomach ulcers are also much more likely in people living with chronic stress because increased hormones, rapid breathing and increased heart rate can lead to an increase in stomach acid.

Stress can also lead to overeating or not eating enough and it can affect the way food moves through your body. You will therefore be more susceptible to diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting or stomach ache.

Muscular system

When experiencing stress, your body’s muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury. However, if you’re constantly under stress, your muscles may not get a chance to relax. This leads to frequent headaches, back and shoulder pain and body aches.

In the long-term, this can develop into further unhealthy patterns as the pain leads to limiting your exercising and turning to pain medication for relief instead.

Sexuality and reproductive system

Stress can be exhausting for the body and mind. As a result, it’s not uncommon to experience a diminished sexual appetite.

In men, short-term stress sees increased testosterone production. However, if stress becomes long-term, a man’s testosterone levels can drop. This can, in turn, disrupt sperm production and lead to erectile dysfunction or impotence. Chronic stress may also increase the risk of prostate and testes infection.

In women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle, leading to irregular, heavier or more painful periods. Chronic stress can also magnify the physical symptoms of menopause.


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