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How stress impacts your health, and what you can do to improve it

Experiencing stress is a part of our daily lives and it is almost impossible to avoid it completely. But what is stress and how does it affect our health? In this article, we address these questions and offer some scientific suggestions on what you can do to reduce and better manage your stress.


What is stress and what happens in the body during stress?


Definition, types of stress, and symptoms

Stress is the way our bodies react when we encounter challenging situations. When such situations arise, we feel threatened and feel incapable of coping (1). Stress responses evolved for short-term selective gains, or “fight or flight” responses (2). For example, when ancient humans fought with wild animals (the stressor), a series of biological reactions occurred within the human body to help it survive. Various hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, are released in life-threatening situations. That leads to increased blood sugar spikes to get more energy, tense muscles to get ready, and a faster beating heart to improve blood pumping. Digestion and other functions slow down to conserve energy. The body is prepared to “fight or flight”. Today we do not fight with wild animals, however, we can still perceive everyday situations as threatening or excessively demanding (3). For many of us daily commutes, family and social situations or work-related activities are the sources of stress.  Imagine that being stuck in traffic today would trigger the same physical reaction as fighting a lion!

Common symptoms of stress

Additionally, stress may lead to physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, high blood pressure, dizziness, stomach-ache, loss of concentration, difficulty making decisions, inability to control anger, changes in appetite, decreased sexual desire, feeling overwhelmed, and thinking often about what you need to do (3). Furthermore, often people deal with stress by engaging in unhealthy behaviours such as drinking alcohol excessively or too often, using illicit drugs or smoking, gambling, or overeating, which could lead to additional adverse health effects (4).

Two types of stress

Researchers have proposed that there are different types of stressors with each having potentially different outcomes on our health:

  • Acute stress – occurs and ceases relatively quickly, such as a life-threatening accident or even less serious events such as taking a test or a new assignment (1).
  • Chronic stress – difficulties that persist over time, such as caretaking for a terminally ill spouse or lacking a stable place to live (1).

Acute stress:

Acute stress can alter many biological functions, as mentioned above, and even though it is perceived as a negative experience (who likes to feel stressed after all?) it can have positive effects on performance, and it has been linked to motivation (5). Exercise, for example, can be considered a form of acute stress. It is a metabolically stressful event resulting in the production of oxygen radicals. Studies suggest that the production of these radicals is important in capturing the positive effect of exercising (6). Moderate exercise is viewed as positive stress, and it is one of the most promising human interventions because it promotes stress resistance (6). Acute stress is often positive stress.


Chronic stress:

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is negative stress. It is damaging to your health and may have long-term consequences (7). Chronic stress has been linked to many serious diseases such as depression, poorer prognosis for cancer and heart disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic work stress can exacerbate anxiety and depression (8 – 12).

Illness and chronic stress

Intuition tells us that the more chronic stress we experience the worse health we would have, and research generally supports this idea (1). For example, greater stress exposure has been found to predict the onset or exacerbation of several mental health problems, such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder; several physical health conditions including cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, and Alzheimer’s disease; and impaired cognitive function. In addition, greater stress exposure is presumed to lead to degrading quality of life and is a strong predictor of earlier mortality (13, 14).

The connection between stress and aging mechanism

There is a vast amount of research on chronic stress because of its link with disease. Chronic stress promotes changes across our bodies: in the autonomic, neuroendocrine, metabolic, and immune systems, creating a dramatically different biochemical environment than that of organisms not exposed to stress (15). These changes might affect aging biology and diseases of aging. Of the nine Hallmarks of aging, some have already been linked to stress response (16). (You can find more about the Hallmarks of aging here Hallmarks of Aging – Part 1 – nem.health). The relationship between psychological stress and genomic instability (DNA damage), telomere attrition, and certain patterns of gene expression has been studied.

More research needed

One study summarized the current understanding of the direct connection between stress and aging and concluded that research is insufficient, and more studies are needed (6). The researchers investigated the way people respond to stress and if that can be linked to the way animal cells respond to stress. The cellular responses to stress in animals are much better understood and studied by applying environmental stressors such as heat, nutrition, radiation, and osmotic stress. However, the complexity of human psychology and anatomy has made it difficult to identify parallels between how cells and humans respond to stress beyond suggestive correlations. Although the effect of stress on humans has been well documented, the direct connection between stress and aging has been studied to a limited extent, almost exclusively in laboratory model organisms such as fruit flies (6). The vast body of research links stress to diseases that lead to mortality, but the direct links between stress biology and aging mechanism are not that well understood. The study concluded that a big gap exists between basic research (research done in the lab, for example in cells) and clinical research (research done on humans) when it comes to aging and stress (6).

In conclusion, clinical research on the direct link between stress and aging is lacking. However, it suggests that stress leads to diseases and that, in turn, affects longevity and aging.


How can we manage stress, slow aging, and prevent age-related diseases?

Pervasive and inevitable stress has become synonymous with modern life (17). We cannot eliminate all stress. And in fact, as mentioned above, that is not desirable because with moderate positive stress comes survival behaviour, motivation, and positive striving (6). But how can we make toxic and chronic stress manageable?

There are a few things we can do to manage chronic stress. Firstly, it is important to determine the cause of stress, recognize the signs and identify unhealthy behaviours (18). Secondly, it has been shown that practicing mindfulness-engaging at the moment, being present in the situation, and focusing on what you are doing, is a good technique for managing stress (19). Finally, living a healthy lifestyle is an important component of managing stress since eating a nutritional diet, exercising, and sleeping well have been shown beneficial in minimizing the effects of stress (18).


Genetics may play a role in stress responsiveness

It is important to remember that everyone responds to stress differently and that not everyone is at the same risk of poor health after stress (20). The question of how a person responds to stress is very complex given the variety of stressors, types of stress reactions, and social factors. Some researchers suggest that how we respond to stress may determine the rate of biological aging (6). For this reason, it is important to assess both lifelong exposures to stress and overall health. An emerging area of ​​research is the study of how biological predispositions influence responses to stress. Studies have shown that people’s responses to common stressors may be genetically dependent (21). Although the reported impact is relatively small, it can help focus and tailor treatment as we transition to precision medicine.

In conclusion, stress may cause disease and indirectly accelerate aging. But stress can also be mitigated. As part of our lifestyle assessment at NEM, a stress assessment is included to eliminate stress-related causation of other symptoms and age-related risk factors. NEM’s longevity coaches incorporate mindfulness and mental well-being if needed to increase the overall well-being and longevity of the client. By managing stress, we live happier and healthier lives.

Silviya Demerzhan, Ph.D.

Chief Scientific Officer, Nordic Executive Medicine
Medical review by: Dr. Mahir Vazda MD


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