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How Long-Term Stress Negatively Affects the Body

Left unchecked, severe stress — the kind that continues for months or years — is more apt to lead to serious illness than short-term stressors do.

“The stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and epinephrine affect most areas of the body, interfering with sleep and increasing the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, and heart disease, as well as causing depression and anxiety,” says Alka Gupta, MD, co-director of the Integrative Health and Wellbeing program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill-Cornell Medical Center in New York City.

Here are a few key ways chronic stress can impact the body:

Stress causes inflammation. Studies have shown that chronic stress is linked to increased inflammation in the body. “One of the proposed actions of stress is that it triggers inflammation in the body, which is thought to underlie many diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis, and even pain,” says Dr. Gupta.

One possible culprit: Chronic stress seems to be linked to an increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines, a type of immune cell that is typically part of the body’s defense system when you have an infection.

“People with autoimmune conditions, where the immune system attacks the body itself, tend to have higher levels of these cytokines,” says Michelle Dossett, MD, PhD, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a staff physician at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The good news is that stress management techniques such as meditation have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, lowering cytokines in the body.

Stress affects your digestive tract. “The gastrointestinal tract is filled with nerve endings and immune cells, all of which are affected by stress hormones,” says Dr. Dossett. As a result, stress can cause acid reflux as well as exacerbate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Not to mention create butterflies in your stomach.

Stress messes with your immune system. A number of studies show that stress lowers immunity, which may be why you’re likely to come down with a cold after a crunch time at school or work — right on the first day of your vacation. “Patients with autoimmune disorders often say they get flare-ups during or after stressful events or tell me that their condition began after a particularly stressful event,” says Dossett.

Stress can muddle your brain. “Brain scans of people with post-traumatic stress disorder show more activity in the amygdala, a brain region associated with fear and emotion,” says Haythe. But even everyday kinds of stress can affect how the brain processes information.

“We see actual structural, functional, and connectivity-related brain changes in people who are under chronic stress,” adds Gupta. All of these can affect cognition and attention, which is why you may find it hard to focus or learn new things when you are stressed.

Stress can make you feel crummy all over. Stress makes us more sensitive to pain, and it can also cause pain due to muscular tension. “People under stress also tend to perceive pain differently,” says Gupta.

They’re also less apt to sleep well, which doesn’t help matters. “Sleep is so important in terms of helping to prevent every disease,” adds Haythe. “It helps reboot the immune system and prevents depression, irritability, and exhaustion.”

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