Published on: October 31, 2014
by Lizette Borreli for Medical Daily:
Whether you’re stuck in traffic, on a job interview, or on a first date, you’re most likely to experience an unavoidable and toxic degree of stress. This short-term frustration can evolve into long-term agony, leading to psychological and physical stress yielding the common health problems such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. However, stress affects the entire human body in the most unexpected ways.
A national poll conducted by National Public Radio (NPR) in conjunction with Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health found more than one in every four Americans say they had a great deal of stress in the previous month. Moreover, half of all adults, or more than 115 million people, say they experienced a major stressful event in the past year.
However, this poll only captures the stress people are conscious of and not the “hidden” stress that can affect our ability to balance the big and little problems in life. This cognitive impairment not only deteriorates our mental health but our physical well-being.
Although stress can be a positive force motivating you to perform well and outdo yourself, it can also be a negative force that can become chronic. Stress can weaken your immune response and make you more susceptible to infectious diseases and other ailments. To avoid stress from interfering with your ability to live a normal life, beware of these surprising stress-induced health issues.
1. Shrunken Brain Tissue
Stress can have a significant toll on your mental health. Chronic stress can reduce the amount of tissue in areas of the brain that regulate emotions and self-control. A 2012 study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry found stress shrinks the brain and lowers a person’s ability to cope with adversity.
The participants showed smaller gray matter in their brains in the prefrontal cortex — a region that is responsible for self-control, emotions, and physiological functions like regulating glucose and insulin levels. However, chronic stress doesn’t affect brain volumes on its own. This is because chronic stress may wither away parts of the brain gradually, so it’s not noticeable, but it is enough to magnify its effects and compromise our ability to cope.
Your susceptibility to catching a cold significantly increases if you have ongoing psychological stress in your life. Stress has the ability to alter the levels of certain biochemical markers in the body — essential for the immune system — compromising a person’s immune response.
A 2012 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found the immune systems of those who were stressed were less sensitive to cortisol. This allowed a part of the immune reaction, the inflammatory response, to grow and lead to symptoms of a cold. The inflammatory response feeds off the stress.
3. Memory Loss
Acute or severe stress can interfere with the brain’s ability to recollect and form new memories. Cortisol affects neurotransmitters by reducing synapses that house short-term memory. A 1998 study published in the journal Nature found after 30 minutes of being stressed by an electrical shock, rats were unable to remember their way around a maze. When the shock was given two minutes or four hours before going through the maze, the rats had no problem. The researchers realized when glucocorticoid production was chemically suppressed, there were no stress-induced effects on memory retrieval.
“This effect only lasts for a couple of hours, so that the impairing effect in this case is a temporary impairment of retrieval. The memory is not lost. It is just inaccessible or less accessible for a period of time,” said James McGaugh, director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California at Irvine, according to the University of Texas Medical Branch.
4. Premature Labor
Stress can not only affect the ability to get pregnant, but it can increase the risk of going into premature labor. The emotional state of a pregnant mother may affect her unborn child. Maternal stress and anxiety during pregnancy have both immediate and long-term effects on her offspring.
A 2013 study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found inflammation and elevated free cortisol during pregnancy are tied to preterm birth, hypertension, diabetes, preeclampsia, miscarriage, and other adverse outcomes. High levels of stress during pregnancy for minority and low-income women may help explain higher rates of preterm labor, according to the study.
The cytokine-cortisol feedback cycle limits the production of inflammatory mediators and is what helps everyone control their inflammation. However, the feedback cycle of people with chronic stress stops responding to cortisol because of the consistently high levels of the hormone. This leads to the dysregulation of inflammation and cortisol.
5. Sex Appeal
Stress can not only give you physical and mental fatigue but also kill your sex appeal. The reason why women favor “masculine” men may have less to do with their looks and more to do with their powerful immune systems. Researchers have found the link between testosterone, immune strength, and attractiveness was most significant in men who have the lowest levels of cortisol, according to a 2012 study published in the journal Nature. This suggests a man’s high stress levels may interfere with his sex appeal, making him less attractive to women.
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