No matter what your life is like, there’s a very good chance you’ll have to deal with stress at some point or another. While research has shown that adult stress levels have declined somewhat in recent years, a 2012 survey found that stress is still a formidable opponent for many people. When asked to rate their stress levels on a scale from 1 to 10, 20% of adults rated claimed it fell between 8 and 10 range, whereas 44% placed themselves in the 4 to 7 bracket.
Stress doesn’t just drive you up the wall for hours on end; it also takes its toll on your overall health. A stressful lifestyle can have long-term consequences for your heart, waistline and overall wellbeing. Below are some of the possible health risks that can result from frequent bouts of stress.
Heart Disease – The nature of the relationship between frequent stress and heart disease is not exactly clear. Some experts theorize that the hormones released by stress, including cortisol and adrenaline, might be responsible for weakening the heart. Others contend that that stress-induced behavior might be the real culprit (an example of such behavior is using junk food as an emotional crutch). Regardless of what factors are to blame, evidence strongly indicates that stress-filled lives go hand-in-hand with an increase risk of heart disease.
Weakened Immune System – Every day, your immune system must fend off millions of microscopic invaders bent on wrecking your health. Suffice to say, the immune system has a very important role in your body. Constant problems with stress can easily make the immune system’s job all the more difficult, causing it to be less effective in holding back waves of bacteria and viruses.
Overeating and Weight Gain – As mentioned earlier, many people turn to junk food as a sort of coping mechanism for dealing with stress. The reason for this cause-and-effect relationship might have to do with the hormones produced by the body. In a University of Texas study involving laboratory mice, researchers found that stress increased the amount of a hormone known as ghrelin. In both mice and humans, a spike in ghrelin triggers urges to eat food.
Depression – Depression impacts the lives of millions of people on a daily basis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly one in ten American adults suffer from this condition. A 2012 study from the University of Washington (UW) suggests that stress may play a role in the onset of depression symptoms. As with the aforementioned University of Texas report, laboratory mice were used for this experiment.
The reason for why stress might usher in depression is somewhat convoluted. According to the UW report, the link between stress and depression can be traced to peptide known as corticotropin-releasing factor, or CRF for short (peptides are defined as molecules that consist of at least two amino acids). When we experience something pleasing or exciting, CRFs flow to a part of the brain called the ucleus accumbens, where they bind to receptor cells. The ucleus accumbens influences our social interactions, and can also determine our levels of motivation and happiness.
The UW study involved two interconnected cages, which were completely identical in appearance. Each mouse was placed in one of these cages and given a shot of CRF. The mice were then moved to the opposing cage and injected with a placebo liquid. When allowed to choose which cage to occupy, the mice consistently chose the cage in which they had been given the CRF. The study authors concluded that the CRF caused the mice’s brains to release dopamine, giving them a rewarding feeling upon returning to their original cage.
The researchers then set about increasing the mice’s stress levels, which was achieved by forcing them to swim several times over a two day period. With this step finished, the mice were once again subjected to the indentical cage experiment. This time around, the dopamine boost following the CRF infusion never materialized. In a complete about-face, the mice were now noticeably reluctant to enter the “CRF” cage. Essentially, the immense stress placed on the mice had completely inverted the effects of the CRFs, causing them to exhibit signs of depression.
Poor Sleeping Patterns – It can be very difficult for a worried mind to fall asleep. Stress caused by problems at work or from home keeps many people awake until the early hours of the morning. In turn, regularly failing to get enough sleep increases the risk of numerous conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and cardiovascular disease.