Stress and Health

The link between stress and health is closely connected. 

Stress is reaching epidemic proportions!....unrelenting work pressure, concerns about finance and the economy, overwhelming family responsibilities - all can contribute to stress.

Stress and health

You may feel that stress just goes with the territory and that you can adapt to higher and higher stress levels.

But you may be living with an unhealthy amount of stress! 

How does stress affects health? Here we look at:

  1. Stress and the immune system
  2. Stress and cancer
  3. Stress and heart disease

1. Stress and health: Stress and the immune system

Have you ever noticed that after periods of unrelenting pressure that you get sick!

This is because stress and health are closely connected!

I know that as a student I was always getting the "sniffles" after exam periods. In my first year of internship I was always balancing insane hours while fighting off a constant cold.

The Fight or Flight Response

When stressed, the fight or flight response is activated. Glucocorticoids are released and this hormone inhibits the formation of white blood cells, namely the B and T cells.

The B cells mature in the bone marrow and produce antibodies that attach themselves to foreign invaders marking them for destruction.

Stress can lower your immune system.

The immune system is your body's defense system, which detects and eliminates bacteria and viruses in your body.

Stress, by releasing glucorticoids during the fight or flight response, inhibit the formation and kill these white blood cells (including the NK cells). This has a few knock-on effects

  1. This makes the body more vulnerable to tumor growth.
  2. A reduction in the white blood cells also means that wounds take longer to heal and there is an increase in the chance of infection. For example, students under pressure had slower-healing wounds and took longer to produce immune system cells that kill invading organisms (Jemmot, 1983).

Probably one of the most conclusive studies done on the relationship between stress and illness was on a group of 394 participants. Those who reported higher stress showed:

  • higher rates of the presence of infection in their blood for five different viruses, and
  • were judged by doctors as having a clinical cold (Cohen et al., 1991).

Stress and health are intimately related as stress lowers the body’s defenses against illness.

2. Stress and cancer

Although there is little evidence that stress causes cancer, there is evidence that stress can affect the growth of some cancerous tumors.

The stress response releases hormones into the blood. These hormones inhibit the production of B cells and T cells.

These B and T cells either increase immune functioning or recognize the aberrant cells and kill them before they produce a tumor.

Research has shown that stress can lower the body’s defenses and its ability to:

  • prevent the aberrant cells from invading in the first place,
  • repair the aberrant cells, or
  • killer T-cells can kill off cancer cells.

Stress and behavior

Stress can increase the chances of cancer and poor health due to the health-impairing behavior that people may be more likely to undertake when stressed.

When stressed, we are more likely to

  • stop exercising, 
  • start smoking, and 
  • eat unhealthy foods

 ....all factors that increase the chance of cancer. 

3. Stress and heart disease

Stress increases blood pressure and releases hormones that narrow the arteries. The build-up of plaque, or atherosclerosis, in the arteries can result.

As the build-up increases, the arteries narrow further, making the heart work harder to pump the blood and oxygen around the body.

With the heart working harder and pumping blood with greater power, this can create more damage to the arteries.

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