Most of us know that chronic stress is bad, but a recent article in Popular Science details the myriad ways chronic stress takes its toll on you. The article by science writer Brooke Borel reviews how the high cost of stress can impact your nervous, cardiovascular, digestive, immune, and metabolic systems.
Here are some highlights from her article:
Chronic stress is due to a variety of factors, such as poverty, troubled family relationships, or long-term health problems. Chronic stress is associated with inflammation and higher cortisol levels. Cortisol is a steroid hormone, in the glucocorticoid class of hormones, and is produced in humans by the zona fasciculata of the adrenal cortex within the adrenal gland. It is released in response to stress and low blood glucose. Higher levels of stress-induced cortisol can impact sleep patterns adversely.
Immune and metabolic systems
Higher levels of cortisol can also impact the immune and metabolic systems in people undergoing stress, according to research by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a clinical psychologist at the Ohio State College of Medicine. Vaccines can lose effectiveness and wounds may take longer to heal.
Research from Carnegie Mellon University shows that stress makes us more vulnerable to the common cold. In a healthy body, cortisol helps suppress inflammation. Individuals who are chronically stressed have elevated cortisol levels. The immune system grows resistant to the hormone, effectively ignoring it. Inflammation-causing proteins called cytokines—associated with developing a cold—go unchecked.
High cortisol levels can boost the amount of fat around the belly. Extra abdominal fat may increase the risk for diabetes, which in turn may impair the stress response in the brain, says Antonio Convit, a psychiatrist at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research. The system that inhibits cortisol in the brain doesn’t work normally in people with type-2 diabetes.
The brain and the digestive tract are in constant communication, says Emeran Mayer, a gastroenterologist at UCLA. Chronic stress is associated with painful gastrointestinal issues. According to Mayer’s research, some patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) show abnormal levels of cortisol and cortisol-stimulating hormones. People with IBS are also more likely to suffer from stress-related psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and depression.
Dealing with stress
Stress can be reduced a number of ways, including regular exercise, meditation, good sleep habits, and positive social interactions. Another way is consuming L-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea that helps relax you without making you drowsy. Suntheanine is a purified form of L-theanine.