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The Relationship Between Stress and Illness - Is Your Lifestyle Making You Sick?

Updated on April 2, 2013

So, you got in a fight with your significant other, you have exams in a week or two, your car breaks down, you’ve been assigned a group project with someone you absolutely despise, and you have a bunch of important deadlines all coming up in the next week but you’re just too sick to do anything about it. Although sickness is a common result of being overworked and under stress, it can easily be avoided by good time management skills and stress control.

Why are some people more prone to illness than others? There are many harmful germs on just about every surface we touch, but that doesn’t mean everything we pick up will affect us. Those of us with good immune systems will be able to fight away germs easily, while those of us with weak immune systems will have trouble fighting all the bacteria we come in contact with on a daily basis. Sometimes, germs aren't even the cause for stress related illness. Societal pressures and the stress from too many things to do can cause mental illness like depression and eating disorders.

While some people have a strong will and naturally strong immune systems, nobody is fully immune to illness. This is because factors like stress can weaken the immune system, leaving us vulnerable to microscopic monsters. Stress can cause other illnesses too besides those caused by germs. Here are some ways that stress can affect the body.

What is Stress and How Does the Body Respond to it?

When the body encounters a stressful situation, it alarms the brain, which triggers the release of hormones. In turn, these hormones release oxygen and glucose, which sent emergency energy to the muscles of the body and back to the brain. Have you ever heard of the "fight or flight" response? Because of this extra energy, the body is prepared to fight against the stressor or run away from it.

Easy enough right? To get into more detail about the hormone response, when the brain perceives stress, the hypothalamus releases CRF (corticotropin-releasing factor). This triggers the release of another hormone, ACTH (adrenocorticoprin) from the pituitary gland. The ACTH travels through the bloodstream, stimulating the adrenal glands to release epinephrine and cortisol into the blood stream. This is a crucial step because epinephrine and cortisol help provide energy, oxygen, and stimulation to the heart, brain, and other organs and muscles to support the body as it undergoes stress.

.When the body is constantly undergoing stress, the body has to work extra hard to produce this energy and prepare it for the upcoming hardship. This strain on the body can cause illness if done too often. A little stress on the body is normal, but when the stress becomes overwhelming, it can take a toll on your health.

So why does this "fight or flight" response even exist? Several Scientists think it developed because it helped primitive humans deal with threats like fights with wild animals and other humans. In many cases, the stress response is still helpful—it can help in life-or-death situations and even in important moments like giving a presentation or scoring the winning point in a basketball game. A certain amount of stress helps keep life exciting and challenging, but in some cases, like grieving over a loved one, this response to stress can do more harm than good.

Illnesses that can be Caused or Worsened by Stress

Stress is one of the leading causes of insomnia, which is the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. Those with insomnia lay in bed at night worrying about what their next stressor will be or how to cope with something that they don’t know how to handle. Besides insomnia, stress can also greatly affect your appetite, cause heart problems, mental issues, and in some cases, even cancer.

Stress affects the heart and can cause a disease called atherosclerosis. While it has not been proven that stress can accelerate atherosclerosis, there is a fair amount of evidence suggesting that it does. Type A Personalities are more prone to this because they tend to put more on their plate than the more laid back type B personalities. People who react to everyday emotional stresses by clenching their teeth or constantly having the fight-or-flight surge of adrenaline (commonly manifested as frustration, anger or hostility) appear to be at the greatest risk.

The changes in the hormones in our bloodstream can wear down the function of our blood vessels. While stress causes a temporary change in the blood vessels anyway, the rush of adrenaline and hormones can permanently damage them. It causes increased inflammation and in turn causes atherosclerosis.

Furthermore, chronic emotional stress is often accompanied by a worsening in several other cardiovascular risk factors. Smokers under stress commonly increase their consumption of tobacco, for instance. And overeating (and thus weight gain) is quite common in people under emotional stress. Cholesterol levels also tend to increase during periods of increased stress.

When people are stressed, they either eat a lot or they refuse to eat at all. A stable diet promotes a healthy body and lifestyle. When this diet is compromised, it makes the body more prone to illnesses. Some of these illnesses can be very harmful or deadly, such as bulimia, anorexia, and obesity.

People are constantly feeling pressured and stressed to fit into a societal "norm", which, according to the media and magazines, is a touched up picture of a woman with a perfect flawless face, attractive features, a beautiful body, and more importantly, a skinny one. Growing up, young men and women feel the need to be skinny in order to be attractive, which is not always the case. Some of us become so compelled to be thin by society that we binge, purge, eat a lot, or don't eat at all. The story of Isabelle Caro, a supermodel who was plagued with anorexia, is popular among those fighting eating disorders.

National Geographic Taboo- Beauty, Isabelle Caro

Ways to Prevent Stress

Now, a healthy dose of stress is completely natural for the body to handle, only when it becomes overwhelming does it become harmful. When the stressors do seem to pile up, it is important to exercise or do something relaxing to keep your mind off things for a while. Doing this and managing your time wisely can prevent stress and keep your immune system strong.

Exercising on a daily basis not only reduces stress, but it also keeps the body healthy. Some easy exercises like jogging, bicycling, and even just walking around the neighborhood can provide a boost of energy and fresh air.

Finding a hobby also helps the stressed cope with their lifestyle. I know many friends who have found comfort in playing an instrument, drawing, writing, making crafts, and reading. Hobbies not only offer peace of mind, but they give you a new skill and talent that you can take with you for the rest of your life.

Exercises like running or playing sports can help reduce stress on a daily basis.
Exercises like running or playing sports can help reduce stress on a daily basis.


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    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 4 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      well written hub. Sometimes, it is hard to see the difference between illness or stress. Thanks for the info.