Is Stress Making Me Sick? The Surprising Ways Stress Affects Your Health–and What to Do About it

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Have you ever wondered, “Is stress making me sick?” The truth is that 60 to 80 percent of all doctor’s office visits might be linked to stress, according to one study. 

Stress is more than a feeling; it’s an important factor in our overall health story. Read on to discover the impact of stress on the immune system and explore seven natural, effective ways to get more relaxed and healthy.

Is stress making me sick?

If you struggle with frequent respiratory infections–or a more chronic condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)–stress could be the culprit. 

When stressed, our body activates its “fight or flight” response, releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. While crucial in short-term situations, these hormones can disrupt our bodily functions if persistently elevated. 

But it doesn’t stop there. Chronic stress can lead to or worsen conditions like asthma and IBS by increasing inflammation. 

It can also trigger us to turn to unhealthy habits that further hinder our body’s natural functioning and further put us at risk for infections and chronic diseases, such as:

  • Eating high-sugar, high-fat foods
  • Skipping out on sleep
  • Substance use

While stress is a natural part of life, if chronic, it can disrupt our body’s balance, causing a wide range of health issues.

How does stress affect the immune system?

Chronic stress weakens the immune system by changing hormone levels and hindering immune cell function, making us more prone to infections and inflammation. The exact mechanisms involved in this process are complex, but a groundbreaking study from Michigan State University provides new insights. 

The study focuses on a specific stress receptor, known as corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF1), which plays a key role in how certain immune cells–particularly ones called mast cells–respond to stress. 

“Mast cells become highly activated in response to stressful situations the body may be experiencing,” Adam Moeser, Associate Professor and research lead, explains. 

“When this happens,” Moeser adds, “CRF1 tells these cells to release chemical substances that can lead to inflammatory and allergic diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, life-threatening food allergies, and autoimmune disorders such as lupus.”

Related:   7 Reasons Why You’re Waking Up Tired

One of the substances mast cells release is histamine, a chemical known to cause allergy symptoms. However, histamine also plays a vital role in fighting allergens and pathogens.

Histamine is beneficial under normal circumstances. Under intense stress, however, its release can be too extreme, potentially leading to these more severe or chronic health issues.

In his research, Moeser compared the histamine response of mice under various stress conditions. He found that mice with normal CRF1 receptors had higher histamine levels and more severe symptoms when stressed. 

In contrast, mice lacking CRF1 receptors had fewer symptoms, demonstrating a 54 percent reduction in allergic stress and a 63 percent decrease in psychological stress responses. 

So, chronic stress could seriously increase your risk of illness and exacerbate existing symptoms. 

Recognizing the signs of stress

Awareness of how stress manifests in your body is crucial for maintaining good health. Common physical signs of stress include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Panic attacks
  • Blurred vision or sore, irritated eyes
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Cardiological issues like chest pains or high blood pressure
  • Digestive problems like indigestion or heartburn
  • Changes in weight or skin appearance
  • Sweating
  • Changes in menstrual cycle

On an emotional level, symptoms may include:

  • Irritability, anger, or impatience
  • Anxiety, nervousness, or feelings of overwhelm
  • A sense of dread or excessive worry
  • Inability to relax or enjoy activities
  • Depression or lack of interest in life
  • Feelings of neglect or loneliness

These symptoms can arise during acute stress, which may be okay, as they’ll be fleeting. But if you notice these signs often or suffer from a chronic condition, you must start incorporating stress-relieving habits into your routine.

Tips for overcoming chronic stress

There are several safe, natural, scientifically-proven ways to overcome chronic stress and improve your overall health, including:

  1. Meditation. Studies show meditation and deep breathing exercises can significantly lower stress and support immunity. Try meditating for five to 10 minutes each morning, taking deep, long, slow breaths.
  2. Regular exercise. Physical activity is a powerful stress reliever. Even gentler forms like walking and yoga can lower stress hormones and help you stay relaxed and healthy.
  3. Balanced diet. Eating a nutritious, balanced diet with plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables can help your body cope with stress by providing optimal energy and stabilizing blood sugar levels.
  4. Sleep. Getting enough sleep is vital for stress reduction and a healthy immune system. It supports brain health, reduces inflammation, and combats stress-related immune disturbances.
  5. Cold water therapy. Brief exposure to cold water (such as a cold shower) can help reduce stress and anxiety by boosting mood, increasing alertness, releasing endorphins, and lowering cortisol levels. Try standing in cold water for at least one minute.
  6. Forest bathing. This Japanese practice involves immersing yourself in nature, focusing on the outdoors’s sights, sounds and smells. It’s been shown to reduce stress hormone production.
  7. Laughter yoga. Combining laughter exercises with yogic breathing (Pranayama), laughter yoga can lift your mood and decrease stress by releasing endorphins. You can find several fun instructional videos and articles for free online.
Related:   Meditation for Heart Health: The Link Between Meditation and Cardiovascular Risk Reduction

Chronic stress can negatively affect your immune system and overall health. You’ll embark on a happier and healthier life by recognizing this and employing stress management techniques.

Unlock Dr. Mark Stengler’s 32-page eChapter from The Holistic Guide to Gut Health, and learn how you can transform your health from the inside out!

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References:

Here’s how stress may be making you sick | MSUToday

Health care providers’ training, perceptions, and practices regarding stress and health outcomes

When Physicians Counsel About Stress: Results of a National Study | Psychiatry and Behavioral Health | JAMA Internal Medicine

The Fight-or-Flight Response: A Cornerstone of Stress Research – ScienceDirect

Life Event, Stress and Illness – PMC.

The impact of stress on body function: A review – PMC

Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk | PNAS

Physiology, Catecholamines – StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf

Catecholamines—Crafty Weapons in the Inflammatory Arsenal of Immune/Inflammatory Cells or Opening Pandora’s Box? – PMC

The role of suppressor T cells in regulation of immune responses.

Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function – PMC.

(PDF) Stress and disorders of the stress system

Stress Triggers Flare of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Children and Adults – PMC

Stress and Inflammation in Exacerbations of Asthma – PMC

Frontline Science: Corticotropin-releasing factor receptor subtype 1 is a critical modulator of mast cell degranulation and stress-induced pathophysiology – PMC

The role of brain histamine in acute and chronic stresses.

Mast cell corticotropin-releasing factor subtype 2 suppresses mast cell degranulation and limits the severity of anaphylaxis and stress-induced intestinal permeability – ScienceDirect

Roles of histamine and its receptors in allergic and inflammatory bowel diseases – PMC

Related:   4 Tips to Relax and Calm Your Mind

Histamine and neuroinflammation: insights from murine experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis – PMC

Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

The role of deep breathing on stress

Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults

Diet, Stress and Mental Health – PMC

Eat to Beat Stress – PMC

The relationship between sleep quality, stress, and academic performance among medical students – PMC

Role of sleep deprivation in immune-related disease risk and outcomes – PMC

Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water – a continuing subject of debate – PMC

The Impact of Forest Therapy Programs on Stress Reduction: A Systematic Review.

The effect of laughter yoga on perceived stress, burnout, and life satisfaction in nurses during the pandemic: A randomized controlled trial – PMC

Author
Carrie Solomon

Carrie Solomon is a freelance health writer, copywriter, and passionate wellness enthusiast. She’s on a mission to help wellness-focused companies educate, engage, and inspire their audiences to make the world a healthier, happier place. Learn more about her at copybycarrie.com or on LinkedIn.

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