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How Can Stress Make You Sick? Body and Mind-Related Effects

Chronic stress can negatively impact your mental and physical health. Learn how to get relief from stress and anxiety to improve your overall health.

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Stress is a normal part of everyday life. Many things can cause stress including kids, work, personal finances, and relationships. A little bit of stress here and there doesn’t cause any harm – some stress can actually be beneficial and drive you to take action – but prolonged periods of stress can take a serious toll on your mental and physical health.

What is Stress Exactly?

Stress is the body’s natural response to a threat. This threat may be real or perceived, but either way, the body’s response is the same. When you feel threatened – like when a dog barks at you unexpectedly on your morning walk – the nervous system, combined with hormonal signals, causes your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. This is referred to as the “fight-or-flight” response. 

Adrenaline increases heart rate and raises blood pressure. Cortisol, the main stress hormone, increases blood sugar and your brain's use of glucose and the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also blunts any bodily functions that are not essential to a “fight-or-flight” situation, altering both the immune system response and the digestive system. This complicated alarm system affects parts of the brain that control fear, motivation, and mood.

Everyone perceives stress differently. What may feel stressful to one person may be insignificant to another. Some people are better equipped to handle stress than others, too. Stress can actually be a good thing when experienced in small doses. Studies show that stress is an important part of learning, transformative change, and may enhance mental and physical performance.1,2

The body is designed to deal with intermittent stressors and can usually recover quickly, returning hormones to normal levels. Prolonged periods of chronic stress overexpose the body to cortisol and other stress hormones and can disrupt almost all your body's normal functions. This puts you at an increased risk of many health problems. 

Because stress affects people differently, symptoms of stress can present in a number of ways. These symptoms of stress may be similar to those caused by other medical conditions, so if you experience any of the following symptoms for more than 2 weeks, it’s essential to discuss them with your doctor.

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Physical symptoms of stress

  • Increased heart rate and high blood pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle tension
  • Headache
  • Upset stomach, nausea, and dizziness

Emotional and psychological stress symptoms

  • Constant worrying
  • Poor concentration
  • Agitation and moodiness
  • Pessimism and depression
  • Social anxiety

Behavioral stress symptoms

  • Appetite changes
  • Procrastination
  • Increase in nervous behaviors
  • Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes 

Can Stress Really Make You Sick

Some stress is a normal part of life, but when stress becomes chronic, occurring consistently over a long period of time, it can really make you sick. When your heart rate and blood pressure are chronically elevated, and normal digestion and immune function are suppressed due to chronic stress, it can cause severe health conditions.

Stomach issues

Studies show that chronic stress can prevent your digestive system from working properly, affecting your stomach and bowel movements.3

Stress can cause abdominal pain, nausea, heartburn, diarrhea, and constipation. Stress worsens symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). 

If symptoms of GERD are not managed, inflammation from stomach acid can increase your risk of developing peptic ulcers. Chronic diarrhea and constipation can lead to hemorrhoids. 

Impaired immune system

Research shows that ongoing stress impairs the body’s inflammatory response.4 Prolonged inflammation has been linked to many health problems. People who suffer from chronic stress are more likely to get sick when exposed to cold and flu viruses and often take longer to recover.

Mental health problems

Evidence suggests that both chronic stress and shorter bouts of acute stress are linked to depression. The stress response causes an imbalance in several chemicals in the brain, including dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Stress also increases your cortisol levels. These chemical imbalances are associated with depression and affect your mood, sleep, appetite, and sex drive. 

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Migraines and persistent headaches

Headaches are often triggered by stress, including tension headaches and migraines. A study found that a prolonged period of stress may cause a migraine in the following 24 hours.5

Allergies and respiratory illnesses

Chronic stress has been associated with the onset and worsening of asthma and allergies. The body releases histamine in response to stress, which causes allergy symptoms. Long-term stress can worsen allergies or cause an allergic reaction. 

Obesity and eating disorders

Stress can cause increased or decreased appetite, both of which can lead to eating disorders. Studies suggest that increased cortisol levels due to chronic stress can affect several factors that contribute to weight gain.6

High levels of cortisol lead to poor sleep which can cause increased storage of fat tissue. Poor sleep also affects nutrition due to increased cravings for sweets and processed carbohydrates. Obesity is associated with a higher risk of insulin resistance, diabetes, and other health problems. 

Cardiovascular diseases

Evidence suggests that stress can significantly increase the risk of heart disease. Stress causes higher blood pressure and cholesterol, both of which are directly linked to heart disease. Stress also greatly increases your risk of dying from a heart attack.7 

Check out this article for Can Stress Cause High Blood Sugar?.

Tips to Manage and Relieve Stress and Anxiety

Sometimes stressful situations are unavoidable, but stress management is needed to prevent the negative consequences of chronic stress.

Exercise regularly 

Exercise can help relieve stress in a number of ways. Cardiovascular exercise allows your body to use oxygen more efficiently and improves blood flow. These benefits directly affect your brain. Exercise also produces endorphins, the “feel-good” chemicals that improve mood after exercise. Exercise can also be a good distraction from daily stressors. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week.8 

Set goals 

Setting goals and managing priorities can help manage stress. Having many tasks that need completing can be very overwhelming and a source of significant stress. Decide which tasks need your immediate attention and set goals for when to accomplish the rest. Setting goals can increase your sense of control, making it easier to stay optimistic even when the road ahead feels stressful. 

Consider meditation and/or yoga 

Yoga and meditation can help increase energy and focus, helping you feel more equipped to tackle stressful situations. Meditation increases the ability to focus intensely, all while being in a complete state of calm.9 

Studies show that people who meditate regularly have lower stress levels and better executive functioning. Meditation can also increase energy levels and help you feel ready to take on the day.10 

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), mindfulness meditation is a research-backed way to reduce stress.11

Try breathing exercises 

There are many different breathing techniques that can help relieve stress. Breathing exercises are a practical way to manage stress because they don’t take a lot of time and they require no special equipment or travel. Begin with 5 minutes a day, and increase the time spent practicing as you get more comfortable. 

Improve your sleep routine  

Sleep plays an important role in how we handle stress. A minor inconvenience can become a big aggravation when you are chronically sleep-deprived. To sleep better at night, start your day with bright light exposure and avoid blue light 2 hours before bedtime. Be sure to avoid drinking caffeine too late in the day, and don’t nap for too long or too late. Going to bed at the same time every night and waking at the same time every morning can help your body reset it’s natural circadian rhythm. 

Shift your self-talk 

The way you talk to yourself matters. A negative inner dialogue can increase stress levels, while positive self-talk can reduce stress. If you feel stressed or anxious, try shifting your self-talk. The American Heart Association gives these examples of turning a negative thought into a positive one12:

  • Instead of saying, “I can’t do this,” say, “I’ll do the best I can. I’ve got this.”
  • Instead of saying, “I can’t believe I screwed up,” say, “I’m human, and we all make mistakes. I can fix it.”
  • Pet therapy 

Cuddling a pet can lower blood pressure and improve overall heart health. It also releases endorphins that have a calming effect. This can reduce stress, decrease pain, and improve mental health. 

Reach out for help 

Ask your significant other, parents, siblings, friends, or therapist for support. When you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, asking for someone to help lighten the load can reduce stress significantly. Sometimes just talking through what’s causing you stress can help reduce anxiety. 

Eat healthily 

Eating a balanced diet can support a healthy immune system and give you the extra energy needed to cope with stress. Focus on whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. 

Practice eating mindfully to prevent “stress-eating.” Mindful eating decreases stress through deep breathing, thoughtful food choices, and chewing food slowly and thoroughly. It can also help us notice the difference between physical and emotional hunger, which can help us avoid using food as a coping mechanism. 

Learn More About a Healthy Lifestyle with Signos’ Expert Advice

Tracking your glucose levels can help you make smart decisions when it comes to stress, sleep, exercise, and nutrition. Tracking your glucose using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) can help you track your stress levels and improve your health. 

Signos CGM can give you real-time data from your body so you can better understand how your diet, exercise, stress, and sleep affect your blood sugars and overall health. Find out if Signos is a good fit for you by taking a quick quiz.  

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Stress is a normal part of life, but when it becomes chronic, it can really make you sick. When your heart rate and blood pressure are chronically elevated, and normal digestion and immune function are suppressed due to chronic stress, it can cause severe health conditions.

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References

  1. Rudland JR, Golding C, Wilkinson TJ. The stress paradox: How stress can be good for learning. Medical Education. 2019;54(1):40-45. doi:10.1111/medu.13830
  2. Dhabhar FS. The short-term stress response – mother nature’s mechanism for enhancing protection and performance under conditions of threat, challenge, and opportunity. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology. 2018;49:175-192. doi:10.1016/j.yfrne.2018.03.004 
  3. Chrousos GP. Stress and disorders of the stress system. Nature Reviews Endocrinology. 2009;5(7):374-381. doi:10.1038/nrendo.2009.106 
  4. Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Doyle WJ, et al. Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2012;109(16):5995-5999. doi:10.1073/pnas.1118355109 
  5. Stress. National Headache Foundation. https://headaches.org/2007/10/25/stress/. Accessed December 5, 2022. 
  6. Geiker NR, Astrup A, Hjorth MF, Sjödin A, Pijls L, Markus CR. Does stress influence sleep patterns, food intake, weight gain, abdominal obesity and weight loss interventions and vice versa? Obesity Reviews. 2017;19(1):81-97. doi:10.1111/obr.12603 
  7. Salleh MR. Life event, stress and illness. Malays J Med Sci. 2008;15(4):9-18.
  8. American Heart Association recommendations for physical activity in adults and kids. www.heart.org. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults. Published July 28, 2022. Accessed December 5, 2022. 
  9. Luu K, Hall PA. Hatha yoga and executive function: A systematic review. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2016;22(2):125-133. doi:10.1089/acm.2014.0091 
  10. Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, et al. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2003;65(4):564-570. doi:10.1097/01.psy.0000077505.67574.e3 
  11. Mindfulness meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/mindfulness/meditation. Accessed December 5, 2022.

About the Author

Victoria Whittington earned her Bachelor of Science in Food and Nutrition from the University of Alabama and has over 10 years of experience in the health and fitness industry.
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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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