Most people will experience stress at times—physical or mental or both. Generally, two kinds of stress are identified—acute and chronic. Acute stress results from the body’s reaction to a perceived or real immediate threat, often referred to as the “flight or fight” response. Some things that may cause acute stress are noise, crowds, hunger, and physical or emotional trauma.
Infection, illness, or accidents such as a burn or injury, present a different type of stress that will lead to inflammatory response as immune factors stream to the sight. The immune signaling molecules activate the part of the brain that controls the stress response. The compound related to cortisol, cortisone, is widely used as an anti-inflammatory drug to treat certain conditions. The brain also uses cortisol to suppress the immune system and lessen inflammation in the body. Over time chronic suppression of the body’s natural immune response will leave the system more susceptible to infection.
Common Effects of Chronic Stress
Chronic stress can disrupt almost all the body’s processes, leading to increased risk of obesity, insomnia, digestive complaints, heart disease and depression. Known systems that are negatively affected by chronic stress include:
- Digestive system. Stress hormones tend to slow the release of stomach acid and stomach emptying. The same hormones stimulate the colon, leading to diarrhea. Continuously high levels of cortisol can also increase appetite and lead to weight gain.
- Immune system. Chronic stress tends to dampen the immune system, making persons more susceptible to infections. In some cases, stress can have the opposite effect, making the immune system overactive. This can lead to an increased risk of autoimmune diseases in which the immune system attacks the body’s cells and other diseases associated with chronic inflammation.
- Nervous system. Stress hormones, when continuously on, produce persistent feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and impending doom. Excessive amounts of cortisol can also lead to sleep disturbances, loss of sex drive and loss of appetite.
- Cardiovascular system. High levels of cortisol can raise the heart rate and increase blood pressure and blood lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels. Cortisol levels also appear to play a role in the accumulation of abdominal fat, giving some and “apple” shape. People with this type of body shape have a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes than people with a “pear” body shape.
- The brain. In chronic stress, newly formed brain cells can be destroyed. Stress also contributes to depression and makes persons more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Stress can inhibit the formation of memories in the hippocampus and damage the prefrontal cortex. Memory-related functions may also be affected along with generalized anxiety.
- Other conditions. Stress worsens many skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema and hives and can be a trigger for asthma attacks.
Interactions between stress, food, and inflammation may affect food choices and enhance the maladaptive metabolic response to unhealthy meals. Too, diet can affect mood and a pro-inflammatory response to stressors. Depression and stress have negative effects on activation of the vagus nerve, leading to changes in responses to food.
How to Deal With Stress
The Cleveland Clinic Information Center recommends a number of ways to ease stress:
- Eat and drink sensibly.
- Assert oneself.
- Stop smoking or other bad habits.
- Exercise regularly.
- Study and practice relaxation techniques.
- Take responsibility for control of situations.
- Use time-management skills, set priorities, take time for self.
- Examine one’s values and live by them.
- Set realistic goals and expectations.
- Sell self to others.
It has been pointed out that people who are resilient are able to resist the effects of chronic stress more readily than others. (Tweet this quote.) Intense research is underway to identify the biological factors that lead to resilience—genes, proteins, and drugs among them. (Tweet this quote.) For now, developing ways to effectively cope with stress can help alleviate other reactions and help avoid more severe consequences.
This article has been adapted from Aging in Good Mental Health, by Esther Winterfeldt, Ph.D., a Regents Professor Emeritus from Oklahoma State University where she was head of the Department of Nutritional Sciences for 18 years.