The stress and pressures of modern living are more than just grinding facts of life. For many, chronic stress is also a stealthy killer, with new research showing it is as hazardous to your mental and physical health as a poor diet, lack of exercise, and sleep deprivation.
Mary Karapetian Alvord, a practicing Washington, D.C., psychologist and stress specialist, tells Newsmax Health medical science is only just beginning to unravel the connections between stress and cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and other life-threatening conditions.
"Stress has been around forever so it's not a new phenomenon," says Alvord, a member of the American Psychological Association and adjunct associate professor at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. "But what we're beginning to understand is that chronic stress can really damage your body over time."
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Alvord notes that stress hinders a person's immune system defenses — leaving them vulnerable to disease, infection, and other conditions. It also increases inflammation in the body, which has been tied to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other health problems. In addition, numerous studies have linked stress to anxiety, depression, digestive problems, weight gain, memory, and concentration problems.
What happens when we're under stress is the hypothalamus — a tiny region at the base of the brain —triggers the release stress-related hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline boosts heart rate and blood pressure, while cortisol hikes blood sugar and alters immune system responses.
Kathleen Hall, a mental-health specialist and founder of the Atlanta-based Mindful Living Network & The Stress Institute, believes stress is a contributing factor to most major illnesses in the U.S.
"Ninety percent of patient visits to primary care physicians are stress related therefore we can say stress is at epidemic proportions," Hall tells Newsmax Health. "Stress is the driver of most diseases including heart disease, hypertension, cancer, obesity, and depression. I don't think people see it as an issue that is as important to health as [experts] think. But it's really [important to] figure out healthy ways to manage it."
With that in mind, here are a half-dozen ways stress can harm your health and how to cope with it.
Cancer, Immune Disorders
The body's natural stress-response and immune systems are designed to protect us from immediate harm — via the well-known fight-or-flight reaction. But chronic stress can throw the body's systems out of whack, hindering the immune system, and constant overexposure to stress hormones hikes the risk of cancer and other health problems.
What you can do: Relaxation techniques — meditation, yoga, and other practices that calm the mind — have been shown to boost the immune system. Alvord recommends identifying solutions to stressful situations. "We can control it, if we can gain some perspective on the situation," says Alvord, who has produced a book on stress ("Resilience Builder Program") and two stress-busting CDs — "Relaxation and Self-Regulation Techniques for Children and Teens" and "Relaxation and Wellness Techniques."
Former President George W. Bush's heart surgery this month spotlighted the link between stress and heart disease. "People forget that stress is a key risk factor for heart disease," Chauncey Crandall, M.D., one the nation’s top cardiologists, tells Newsmax Health. "Being president of the United States brings with it crazy stress, which often shows up later in the form of heart disease."
What you can do:
Dr. Crandall, head of the cardiac transplant program at the Palm Beach Cardiovascular Clinic and author of the Heart Health Report
newsletter, recommends individuals have a heart stress test, beginning in their mid-40s — in addition to adopting healthy lifestyle habits.
Stressful times may make it harder to eat a healthy diet and pushsome to overeat or load up on high-calorie "comfort foods" — sometimes called stress eating or emotional eating. Obesity and overweight can increase the risk of everything from diabetes and heart disease to cancer and depression.
What you can do: Look for links between what you eat, and when, and stress. If you’re eating when you're stressed and not hungry, find a distraction. Keep comfort foods out of your home or workplace.
Stress has a direct and obvious impact on mental health."Chronic stress leads to depression, or exacerbates depression, so in terms of economics of our world, it takes such a toll not only on our individual health, but also in terms of the economics of all of this," Alvord says.
What you can do: Exercise boosts production of the brain's feel-good neurotransmitters, endorphins, which improve mood and lower the risk of depression — in addition to combatting heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.
It’s not just a cliché: three types of hair loss have been linked to stress: alopecia areata (where white blood cells attack hair follicles), telogen effluvium (which causes hair to stop growing), and trichotillomania (extreme hair pulling caused by stress, anxiety, tension, loneliness, or frustration).
What you can do: In addition to trying stress-management techniques, Alvord suggests building strong support networks, using "positive self-talk" to boost esteem, and getting enough sleep every day.
People who suffer from chronic stress are at greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of conditions — diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood sugar level, obesity, and abnormal cholesterol levels — that occur together, increasing cardiovascular risks.
What you can do: Hall has developed a stress-management program called SELF Care — short for "Serenity, Exercise, Love, and Food" — that emphasizes four key strategies: Meditate, listen to music, or do something else to calm your mind (serenity). Hit the gym, go for a walk, or try yoga, or play a game you enjoy (exercise). Meet with friends, relatives, or join an organization that allows you to connect with someone you care about or your community (love). Eat healthy foods, particularly those rich in omega-3 fatty acids — such as fish and nuts — which help with anxiety and depression (food).
"For me the bottom line is how can you improve your response to stress?" Alvord notes. "Because stress is always going to be a part of our lives, so how can you reduce it as much as possible and cope with the stresses you can’t eliminate?"
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