The effects of stress are not only about butterflies and sweaty palms. Left unmanaged over long periods it has devastating consequences for health, says Anna Magee
As a nation, we’ve got a right to feel a little collective anxiety. With the Brexit negotiations set to go any which way, and our seasonal January pressure points well under way.
But those sweaty palms, racing heart and queasy feelings you get in a crisis are a primitive, natural reaction known as the stress response and in small doses, a healthy thing. It gives us the get-up-and-go to fight an impending challenge – we did after all, evolve to fight or flee stressors like predators in the wild.
Short stressors are actually good for you but when it’s relentless it can lead to health problems
But when stress is ongoing and never relents, as so many of our modern stressors are (overwhelming job or financial pressures…living in a country without a viable government) it can also lead to a vast catalogue of health problems from obesity to acne to heart disease.
In fact, Australian research has found high stress levels could lead to cancer cells spreading six times faster.
Now, a bourgeoning field of medical study known as psychoneuroendoimmunology is looking at the links between what goes on in our nervous systems and the development of illness. Here’s a rundown of exactly how stress impacts our bodies.
Your body on stress
When your body senses danger it triggers a stress response that starts in your brain’s hypothalamus gland that sends signals to the adrenals (two kidney shaped glands that sit on top of the kidneys) to release stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline.
These raise blood pressure and give your body a hit of glucose so you can outrun or wrestle the immediate danger.
‘Cortisol and other stress hormones are important because they prime our bodies to react to threat,’ says Dr Valeria Mondelli, senior lecturer in psychological medicine at King’s College London.
‘But when our cortisol is too high for too long it can lead to physical and mental health problems in many areas of our bodies.’
Stress Effect #1 The cancer connection
It’s not helpful to tell people that their stress caused their cancer – or any other condition – because that creates guilt and self-blame, says Angela Clow, professor of psychophysiology at the University of Westminster.
Moreover, the study in Australia was done on mice who were put through extreme forms of physical stress so can’t be considered conclusive. ‘Having said that, we know that though stress doesn’t cause cancer, it can slow down recovery and increase its progression.’
There are two main branches of your immune system, daytime immunity which targets potential infections such as germs encountered on the Tube and night time immunity which releases natural killer cells that fight more covert invaders such as cancer cells.
‘Chronic, prolonged stress can lead to a deficiency in your night time immunity, which is crucial for cancer protection,’ says Prof. Clow.
‘Studies looking at lifetime survival in breast cancer have shown that after treatment, those with high cortisol levels die statistically earlier and survive less than those with lower levels’, she explains.
A 2016 review published in the journal Integrated Cancer Therapy found that elevated cortisol was the most common biomarker found in breast cancer patients and concluded that mindfulness, breathing and stretching techniques could offer potential improvement in immune activity in survivors.
Stress Effect #2 Fat, cravings and that spare tyre
If you crave fatty or sweet foods under stress, you’re not alone – repeated studies show stressed rats will choose to eat sweet, fatty foods when under stress.
‘High cortisol can affect the transmission of dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter linked to our reward system,’ says Dr Mondelli. ‘That makes us more susceptible to seek rewards by eating more and leads to increased cravings.’
Cortisol also inhibits the breaking down of fat as storing it to fight a future threat would have been essential from an evolutionary perspective. But it may also affect where our fat goes.
‘The way people distribute their fat seems to be related to how they respond to stress,’ says Dr Leigh Gibson, a lecturer in psychology and physiology at the University of Roehampton.
‘It’s been argued that people who adapt better to stress are less likely to put on visceral fat [fat around the middle] compared to people who are better at coping with stress.’ Visceral fat is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes.
If stress gives you sugar cravings, try a supplement such as Biocare’s Sucroguard (£8.86 from Biocare) which contains chromium, a mineral proven to help keep blood sugar levels stable and cravings at bay.
Stress Effect #3 Memory, Alzheimer’s and dementia
Chronic stress could be a risk factor for dementia, says Dr Laura Phipps, of Alzeimher’s Research UK. ‘People with Alzheimer’s disease have been shown to have higher levels of cortisol in the blood and over time, this can cause damage to the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory and one of the first areas affected by the disease.’
Moreover, Phipps explains some studies have shown that more psychological stress in a person’s life is linked to a higher risk of developing dementia, though exactly how this happens isn’t clear.
One explanation could be inflammation, says Dr Mondelli. When our bodies are under stress they produce pro-inflammatory cytokines, immune factors that fight infections.
When these cytokines are elevated over a period of time, inflammation can result and affect not only our bodies’ ability to fight infection, its risk of heart disease and cancer, it can also affect our brains. ‘Inflammation can decrease the number of neuron cells in our brans and affect the way they network with each other and the way we memorise things.’
Stress Effect #4 Heart disease
During the stress response, your breathing increases and heart beats faster in an effort to pump more oxygen and blood to your muscles, preparing it for fight or flight. Stress hormones also cause your blood vessels to constrict and raise your blood pressure.
Indeed, German researchers have found that those who were constantly exposed to traffic noise were at higher risk of heart attack because of the increased stress noise pollution put on their bodies.
But there’s more to it than the consequences of an increased heartbeat, says Dr Mondelli. ‘Elevated stress hormones over time lead to inflammation that damages the internal lining of the blood vessels which can facilitate the production of artherosclerotic plaques that clog up the arteries, increasing risk of heart attack,’ she explains.
Stress Effect #5 Stress and the skin
Those pimples or skin flaking that flare up when you’re stressed are not your imagination, says Dr Anthony Bewley, consultant dermatologist at Bart’s Hospital Trust, London. In fact, he’s seen a rise in adult onset acne in stressed out, middle-aged women.
’Stress not only delays wound healing, stress hormones also lead to the production of more oil in the skin and the blocking of hair follicles that lead to acne,’ Dr Bewley explains.
Conditions such as eczema and psoriasis are also closely linked to stress. ‘The brain is connected to the skin through nerves in the skin so when you get stressed, you release chemicals in the brain that can be pro-inflammatory and lead to flare-ups,’ he explains.
A growing area of treatment on the NHS is psychodermatology in which skin conditions are treated holistically with mindfulnesss or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) alongside medical interventions.
‘We’ve found that if you give a group of psoriasis patients the standard sunlight treatment with mindfulness tapes to relax them, they heal in half the time compared to those that have the sunlight treatment alone,’ says Dr Bewley. Talk to your GP about getting a referral to a psychodermatology clinic if this sounds like you.
What really works for stress
Charlotte Watts, author of De-Stress Effect has proven ways to calm your mind
Take magnesium Taking around 400 milligrams a day can help relax the body and has even been shown to help depression symptoms. Food sources include kidney beans, oats and bananas. Try Healthspan’s Effervescent Magnesium £9.95 (188mg per tablet so take two a day). Or you can use magnesium transdermally – it absorbs well through skin. Try BetterYou’s Magnesium Oil Spray (£12.20 from Healthista Shop) on your calves and belly before bed, it’s immediately relaxing and has been shown to help promote sleep.
Switch off Just ten minutes a day of mindfulness meditation – or simply lying down and taking deep, slow breaths – can improve your levels of long-term stress. We like the Mindfulness Meditation App by Dr Mark Williams (from iTunes).
Move Exercise decreases the immediate effects of stress, helping stress hormones dissipate and also reduces elevated stress hormones overtime. Aim for 20-30 minutes of the kind that gets you puffy and sweaty such as walking, swimming, cycling, dancing or jogging five times a week.
Stretch People that do yoga have been shown to have higher brain levels of GABA, a brain chemical essential to calm, but any kind of stretching exercise that also calms and deepens the breath can help.