Stress - how long term pressure can kill

Written by: 
Simon Crompton, medical writer & author

Research is rapidly discovering that long-term stressRelating to injury or concern. is behind, or makes worse, virtually every bodily malfunction imaginable.

In only the past two months, significant new studies have shown the influence of stressRelating to injury or concern. on heart attackThe death of a section of heart muscle caused by an interruption in its blood supply. Also called a myocardial infarction. and stroke deaths, weight gain and tooth problems. Recent research also links long-term anxiety with health problems ranging from acne and brittle nails to hair loss, diabetes and cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body..

The paradox is that, when brief, the stressRelating to injury or concern. response can save your life. However, when anxiety is prolonged and consistent, good stressRelating to injury or concern. turns bad.

The key lies in the two triangular adrenal glands, one sitting on top of each kidney. When we feel threatened, these release the stressRelating to injury or concern. hormones adrenalin and (most significantly) cortisolA steroid hormone important for helping to regulate carbohydrate metabolism and the stress response., which switch off all the body’s long-term repair projects in favour of short-term measures to help you to deal with the crisis. They are the “worry about the consequences later” hormones, increasing our heart rate and bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. glucoseA simple sugar that is an important source of energy in the body. levels to give us energy, but dampening down our digestion, ability to rest and immune response.

When the threat goes away, these levels should dip again, so that we experience the effects for only up to an hour. The problem, says Professor Stafford Lightman, professor of medicine at Bristol University’s stressRelating to injury or concern. research centre, is that many modern stressRelating to injury or concern. triggers, from redundancies to divorce proceedings, are continuous. “If cortisolA steroid hormone important for helping to regulate carbohydrate metabolism and the stress response. is at high levels continuously over, say, a 24-hour period, the bodily responses that it provokes start to cause damage,” he says.

Blood pressure

Cortisol adjusts the way genes express themselves. The genes that control the narrowing of bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. vessels, for example, are dependent on cortisolA steroid hormone important for helping to regulate carbohydrate metabolism and the stress response. — so continuously high levels keep those genes turned on, and bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. vessels stay narrowed. That, in turn, raises bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. pressure, which can lead to heart attackThe death of a section of heart muscle caused by an interruption in its blood supply. Also called a myocardial infarction. and stroke. A recent study in the European Heart Journal shows that stressed, gloomy people are 22 per cent more likely to have heart disease than more resilient people.

Brain function

Stress reduces your reasoning power and impairs memory. Experiments with rats indicate that long-term exposure to cortisolA steroid hormone important for helping to regulate carbohydrate metabolism and the stress response. causes brain cells to fire too frequently, causing premature death.

Research indicates that it may play a part — with poor diet and lack of physical activity — in the development of type 2 diabetes.These conditions revolve around the inability of the body to regulate bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. sugar levels, which cortisolA steroid hormone important for helping to regulate carbohydrate metabolism and the stress response. is known to influence.

Depression

People with severe depression have sustained high levels of cortisolA steroid hormone important for helping to regulate carbohydrate metabolism and the stress response., which, in turn, reduces the effect of chemicals called neurotransmitters that help brain cells to communicate.

Teeth grinding

A recent study from Heinrich Heine University in Germany indicates that night-time tooth-grinding is most common in people who are experiencing stressRelating to injury or concern.. Edinburgh dentists have reported a 20 per cent increase in teeth grinding since the beginning of the recession.

Obesity

The link between being stressed and putting on weight has been hotly debated, but recent American research indicates that continually raised cortisolA steroid hormone important for helping to regulate carbohydrate metabolism and the stress response. levels can result in obesityExcess accumulation of fat in the body., particularly in girls and those who are depressed.

Hair loss

If your body is stressed, growing hair or nails is not high on its priority list. Chronic stressRelating to injury or concern. is a major risk factor for alopecia — bald spots in your hair or beard.

Fertility

Stress hormones inhibit gonadotropin, the sex hormoneA substance produced by a gland in one part of the body and carried by the blood to the organs or tissues where it has an effect., suppressing ovulation, sperm production and sexual activity.

Colds, flu and infections

The continuous presence of cortisolA steroid hormone important for helping to regulate carbohydrate metabolism and the stress response. in our bloodstream reduces our ability to fight virusesMicrobes that are only able to multiply within living cells. and bacteriaA group of organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye, which are usually made up of just a single cell.. The longer-lasting the stressRelating to injury or concern., the weaker the immune systemThe organs specialised to fight infection..

Cancer

Recent research indicates that because long-term stressRelating to injury or concern. weakens the immune systemThe organs specialised to fight infection., it may influence whether you develop cancers that are triggered by virusesMicrobes that are only able to multiply within living cells. — for example, cervical cancerAbnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. and some liverA large abdominal organ that has many important roles including the production of bile and clotting factors, detoxification, and the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. cancers and lymphomas.

(c) Simon Crompton     www.simoncrompton.com