What are the long term affects of stress on the body?

Stress is the body’s reaction to situations that are, or are perceived to be, harmful. The stress reaction is a chemical one that prepares the body to act in a way that will mitigate the perceived threat. This is known as the fight or flight reaction. The heart rate and breathing increases, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises all in preparation for the body to spring into action. Short term bouts of stress can be beneficial, as the adrenaline and other stress hormones can improve cognitive function and even help fight off a cold. However chronic stress can have serious affects on your health in the long run. But what are some of the long-term effects of chronic stress?

Illness 

The hormones released by stress can affect those that are produced by the body’s immune system. Cortisol, one of the hormones released by stress, can inhibit the production of cytokines by a person’s immune system. Cytokines are a chemical that is responsible for coordinating the body’s attack on invading pathogens and illness, so if the production of this is interrupted then a person’s body will not be able to effectively coordinate an immune response. Because of the way that it compromises the immune system, stress hormones can also cause flare ups in pre-existing conditions such as Chrones Disease, or can even increase one’s vulnerability to developing a condition in the first place.

Digestive System 

It is common for those experiencing stress to have stomach problems, including a stomach ache or diarrhoea. The hormones released during moments of stress slow the release of stomach acid and thus slow down the process of emptying the stomach. This leads to an excess build up of gas in the GI tract and can lead to indigestion. It has been shown to cause problems such as stomach ulcers and even more serous gastro-intestinal problems such as IBS or Chrones.

Cardiovascular System 

Part of the bodies natural stress response is to raise both one’s heart rate and their blood pressure. Chronic stress can lead to a permanently raised heart rate and blood pressure, and can even cause heart palpitations and chest pain. Sustained levels of high blood pressure and high cholesterol can lead to a condition called atherosclerosis, in which fatty plaque builds up inside the walls of a person’s arteries. This can lead to heart attacks, as the blood cannot pump properly through the heart. Unhealthy stress coping strategies can also lead to cardiovascular disease, such as increased drinking or smoking which will also increase cholesterol levels and one’s BP.

Musculoskeletal System 

When a person experiences stress the muscles often contract and tighten. Prolonged stress, and therefore prolonged tightness, can cause aches and pains due to the build up of tension in those muscles. People may also experience muscle spasms in the neck and shoulders. It can also cause (or exacerbate) muscle twitches, physical tics, headaches, migraines, and even cause pain in a person’s jaw due to clenching or grinding one’s teeth without realising it.

Reproductive Systems 

Stress hormones can cause reproductive problems in both men and women. For women it can cause heavy bleeding during menstruation, increased pain, and can even cause one to become more susceptible to repeated infections. Chronic stress in men can also often be a factor in the development of erectile dysfunction, or problems with premature ejaculation. For both men and women it can lead to a decrease in libido and, despite the fact that many people often dismiss it as an old wives tale, stress can be a factor in many problems with infertility.

Although stress can be good for us in short bursts, our body’s stress response is designed to solve the problems of short-lived situations; when a level of stress is maintained it can go from having positive effects to negative ones, increasing the chances of both developing disease and also of developing unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as drinking or smoking which can cause illness on their own. Though we often tell ourselves we don’t have time to relax or de-stress, it’s important not just for our mental health that we do so, but for our physical health too.