It's Hard on the Brain & Body
It Ages You
Scientists have discovered that the tips of your chromosomes, your telomeres are affected by chronic stress. Simply put, the healthier your telomeres, the easier it is for your cells to divide and replenish every area of your body, from bones to brain.
Think of a telomere as a Q-tip with a protective cotton end. Over time the cotton tip naturally wears away depending on how often and vigorously it is used - whether it's used to clean a delicate inner ear or a hard-to-reach greasy spot on your stove top.
When you are psychologically stressed, the body's stress response is activated. Your supply of stem cells divide and rush to fix the problem. Each time the cells divide, the telomeres get shorter. Chronic stress destroys those telomeres, shortening them and making it harder for stem cells to produce. Eventually, the cells cease to function and you age faster.
It Makes You Fat
There are two hormones in your body that have a big influence on your waistline: leptin and ghrelin. When there is plenty of leptin in your system, you feel full and are less likely to overeat. But when ghrelin takes over, you get that hard to beat, "got to eat" impulse that can lead to a stop at the closest fast-food restaurant.
The goal is to romance leptin and repel ghrelin. That means getting plenty of sleep because ghrelin thrives while leptin suffers from too little sleep.
Fat on the hips and arms may be unfashionable, but belly fat - the kind that accumulates around internal organs - has been linked to many modern diseases. Having a big belly is even more closely correlated with health problems than obesity in general. Scientists have several explanations. A large waist (over 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women) may be a sign of psychological stress and related health problems, since the stress hormone, cortisol, seems to prefer to send fat to the abdomen. The solution: lose weight.
Weakens Your Immune System
Psychological stress creates biochemical changes in the body that affect the immune system. Cortisol, a harmone released when stressed, inhibits chemicals that strengthen disease fighting defenses. That means making it harder to fight a flu virus or bacterial infection, or aggravating your allegies, asthma and eczema.
Stress has also been shown to raise the level of inflammation in the body, which is associated with heart disease. A recent study by the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that stressful conditions can raise the amount of C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation associated with cadiovascular problems later in life.
There are plenty of ways to counteract the negatives of stress. As you probably know, exercise is particularly good because it uses up excess levels of cortisol and adrenaline while elevating feel-good endorphins. Another powerful defense is meditation.
Sabotages Your Memory
In a recent column, Angela Lunde of the Mayo Clinic wrote that many people confuse Alzheimer's disease and dementia; that while Alzheimer's accounts for 60-70 percent of dementia cases, other conditions can cause the symptoms of dementia such as poor memory. This includes chronic stress.
Stress causes headaches, moodiness, and anxiety. That's because the stress response floods the body with chemicals that increase tension, and inhibit calm, clear thinking.
Negative thinking is increasingly recognized as a source of many stress related problems. Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT, which coaches stressed people to examine and challenge negative thinking, can be very effective in improving cognitive functioning.
Ruins Your sleep
They call it beauty sleep for a reason and most women will agree that nothing kills the complexion like too little of it. But for reasons that are still unclear, poor sleep habits appear to make women more vulnerable to heart disease than men.
A study by Dr. Edward Suarez at Duke University recorded the levels of cholesterol, insulin, glucose, the clotting agent fibrinogen, inflammatory proteins that contribute to heart disease and insuline resistance (a marker for diabetes). Because emotional factors affect sleep as well, he assessed his patients' levels of depression, hostility and anger. Dr. Suarezmen found a consistent link between poor sleep and higher risk levels for heart disease and diabetes - but only among women.
Dr. Suarez believes higher testosterone levels in men make a difference. Testosterone is known to reduce heart-damaging inflammatory proteins. And while sleep is not the only factor when weighing risks, too little slumber can raise the risks. Bottom line: a good night's rest is about more than beauty.
Robs You of a Sex Life
It's natural for men and women to notice a slow decline in sex drive as they age. The degree of the decline varies with the individual. However, an abrupt loss of sex drive at the relatively young age of 51 isn't normal. Most men and many women still maintain some sexual interest well into their 60s and 70s. Stress can be the culprit. Here's why:
One of the coping hormones released when you are under stress is Corticotropin-releasing Hormone or CRH. While CRH fights stress, it also interacts with other chemicals that affect reproduction and sexual behavior (the body is temporarily shutting down all nonessential functions).
Stress can also lead to depression, which diminishes sexual desire as will excess weight. Extra belly fat tends to convert testosterone (the hormone that which triggers the libido) to estrogen.
The Lighter Side of Stress
Feeling stressed about stress? There is one more thing to say: laughter is some of the best medicine around and it's free!
So if you are feeling blue, perhaps this video will cheer you up.