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The Dangers of Chronic Stress
Understanding the deadly consequences of “Chronic Human Stress”
In the first of this two part series on stress we take a close look at the two different types of stress to see how each affects our lives, from thereon we progress to the serious side effects of prolonged stress. In part two we will learn how to manage stress more effectively by minimizing the presence of the undesirable kind.
The lethal side effects uncovered
For most people the word stress bears strong negative overtones. The majority of society supposing they would be much happier if they could render themselves 100% stress free by completely eradicating this affliction from their entire being. Nevertheless, it may surprise you to know that not all stress is bad; indeed there is a type of stress which actually supports us. The two types of stress that exist are known respectively as acute and chronic stress; acute stress is the friendly kind as we shall see shortly. It’s the prevailing type of chronic stress that poses a threat to our physical and mental well being, and this needs to be kept in check.
By providing us with a vital warning system during times of physical danger, acute stress is critical to human survival. When the brain detects any kind of stress it automatically responds by releasing hormones into the bloodstream; such as epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and cortisol in large quantities, this invokes multiple reactions such as increased blood pressure and accelerated heart rate. In addition, the senses are sharpened to a laser like precision thus enabling us to avoid painful or tragic situations like being able to quickly jump out the way of a moving car before it hits us. Acute stress will start to dissipate from the body shortly after the threat has passed thus returning us to our former state prior to the threat. Restricted amounts of stress not only act as a biological alarm system but can also benefit our overall health in other ways. For example tests carried out on lab rats have indicated that short term stress can actually boost the immune system.
In a recent study at the University of Berkeley in California it was discovered that acute stress creates new nerve cells in the brain which when mature (this takes a couple of weeks) can actually aid in improved mental and cognitive performance. Unfortunately for millions of people around the globe acute stress has evolved into the deadly chronic type, hence cancelling out most of the health benefits related to temporal stress. As if this wasn’t bad enough we are now under threat from a barrage of serious health risks linked to chronic stress. Chronic stress affects not only our mental health but can also cause our physical well being to deteriorate even to the point of death. As was mentioned previously hormones released into the bloodstream causes our blood pressure to rise while at the same time increasing our heart rate, thus creating the critical fight or flight reaction that is required in dangerous situations. In the case of chronic stress however the body does not return to its former state as with acute stress; if left unchecked these prevailing symptoms can wreak havoc on both our mind and body.
A research team at Carnegie Mellon University led by Psychology Professor Sheldon Cohen has found that prolonged stress alters the effectiveness of cortisol’s ability to regulate inflammatory response. This happens when tissue sensitivity to this hormone decreases; i.e. the body becomes less responsive to cortisol in a similar way that insulin insensitivity works in diabetics. According to a publication in WebMD by Karen Bruno, prolonged high levels of cortisol in the body have the effect of reducing serotonin and dopamine in the brain leading to depression. Anxiety is considered to be a natural reaction to stress, such as when going to a job interview; and this is usually a temporal condition. In situations of chronic stress however it can lead to cases of persistent anxiety which can cause an individual to become irrational. An increase in cortisol can also lead to undesirable physical abnormalities, like excess belly fat, known by its medical name as visceral fat, Not only is visceral fat unsightly it can contribute to the risk of certain potentially fatal diseases such as heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes all of which are discussed later on.
In an experiment led by Carol A. Shivley PhD of Wake Forest University in North Carolina, monkey’s were given a typical American diet, while some were also subjected to chronic stress. Although both groups of monkey’s gained belly fat, those who were stressed out gained significantly more, leading to a higher risk of blocked arteries and metabolic syndrome. Interestingly enough, Shivley’s team had discovered in an earlier experiment that socially stressed monkeys, lower down the pecking order, showed faster signs of blocked arteries than of those in the higher echelons. Columnist Rosalind Ryan recently wrote an article for British newspaper The Daily Mail in which she cited a study carried out by Finnish researchers which concluded “The long term effects of stress could be the biggest cause of Alzheimer’s disease”. The study found that; patients with a combination of high blood pressure and elevated levels of cortisol in their system, were more than three times as likely to develop the Alzheimer’s disease than patients without these symptoms. Experts believe that once cortisol enters the brain it starts killing off cells which ultimately leads to Alzheimer’s. In her article Ryan also addresses the increased risk of infertility as a side effect of stress; referring to a study carried out by the University of Berkeley concluding that the female body releases high quantities of Oxytocin while under stress. Oxytocin is a bonding hormone that is also released during orgasm and childbirth, however in prolonged excessive amounts it can also inhibit fertility by interfering with a woman’s menstrual cycle, it can also increase the risk of miscarriage.
Considering one of the major functions of hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol is to boost energy by raising blood sugar levels, the prevailing presence of these two hormones increases the probability of developing type 2 diabetes. While under stress people tend to take less care of themselves, being prone to bad food choices; hence when copious amounts of sugar and fat are ingested an individual greatly increases this risk. There is strong consensus among experts that a correlation exists between heart disease and stress, however many believe that this comes from indirect pathways rather than directly from stress itself. The Harvard Medical School published an article recently suggesting that bad food choices which are often associated with comfort eating (though not always), along with consumption of alcohol and tobacco products can significantly contribute to the risk of suffering from heart disease.
One of the leading causes of death in the United States comes from “Stroke”, 130,000 Americans die from this disease each year; the most vulnerable sectors of society being the middle aged and upwards. A study published in the American Heart Association’s magazine “Stroke” reported that of the 6,700 individuals surveyed between the ages of 45-84; those with symptoms of depression had an 85% increase in the likelihood of suffering a stroke. In addition to this, those with a high rating of chronic stress showed a 59% increase, as compared to those with healthy psychological scores.
Other experts believe chronic stress could also be linked to certain types of cancer, however this theory has been downplayed by the National Cancer Institute who say that various studies which have attempted to establish whether or not a link actually exists have produced conflicting results, and more research is needed. As is the case with some of the other illnesses previously mentioned, secondary habits that are triggered by stress, such as smoking and drinking may also be culpable for people developing cancer. However it is also possible that stress could actually have a direct effect on pre-existing cases of cancer from evidence of accelerated tumor growth in the presence of increased stress.
The list of stress related illnesses discussed in this article is by no means exhaustive and further research concerning the side effects of chronic stress is definitely required. Nevertheless the content of this article provides sufficient evidence to prompt the reader into seeking ways of reducing the amount of stress in their own lives if any of this applies to you. The ways to reduce stress will be covered in part two of this post; which will be coming soon.
- Stress and mental health a conceptual view
- Central role of the brain in stress
- Stress and coronary heart disease psychological risk factors
- The influence of social hierarchy on primate health
- Is visceral obesity a physiological response to stress?
- Oxidative stress and alzheimers
- Radicals and oxidative stress in diabetes
- Stress and cancer
- Stress and depression
- Stress and anxiety
Share your thoughts with us regarding the Dangers of Chronic Stress
Some questions to consider:
- Do you suffer from stress? And how often?
- How do you deal with stress?
- Are there certain proactive measures that you put into place to avoid stressful situations?
- What are the main causes of your stress?
- Do you suffer from Anxiety of Depression caused by stress?
If you would like to share your thoughts please leave a comment below.