16 Scary Medical Conditions You're At Risk Of Developing From Stress

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How Stress Affects Your Health & 16 Medical Conditions That Are Effects Of Stress
Health And Wellness

The state of the world this year has led to a lot of people being under immense stress. And while stress is never very pleasant, it can also be dangerous to our health.

The effects of stress impact our bodies in many ways, and can even kill us if we don’t find ways to manage it and get it under control.

When it comes to how stress affects your health, it can end up wreaking havoc on all the systems in our body.

“Your first response to stress is the activation of the autonomic nervous system,” says Dr. Jessica Wright, owner and operator of Rejuvenate Med Sp. “The hypothalamus tells the adrenals to release cortisol and adrenaline.”

These hormones increase your heart rate and, in turn, your cardiac output. You're then able to fight or run from danger. Adds Dr. Wright, “Your hypothalamus cannot tell the difference between perceived threats or real threats.”

But what is cortisol and why is it important to our health?

RELATED: What Is Cortisol? How High Stress Hormone Levels Wreck Havoc On Your Mental & Physical Health

Says Dr. Wright, “It is our own built-in anti-inflammatory agent.” Sounds perfect, right? Unfortunately, the old saying, “Too much of a good thing” really holds true here.

“One of the ways cortisol cools the body down is by dampening the immune system,” she adds. “Too much cortisol can leave our immune systems vulnerable to pathogens. Our bodies do their absolute best to correct all these issues internally.Chronic stress leading to low cortisol can leave you exhausted and never rested.”

This is an example of why hormones have to be just right, not too low or too high. And cortisol is no exception. Managing your stress is the most important thing you can do for yourself.

What medical problems are a result of stress? Aside from creating panic or unease, there are other areas of health we never even imagined were at risk.

1. Dry eyes

Stress may be linked directly to dry eyes. According to Dr. Leigh Plowman, an optometrist and founder of Dry Eye Directory, “A Korean study found that dry eye disease was more prevalent with increased stress.”

Why? This may be due to increased awareness of pain, increased systemic inflammation in the body due to stress, or depression, which can increase the risk of dry eyes.

Adds Dr. Plowman, “People with poorer sleep quality tend to have a higher risk for dry eyes. Sleep deprivation can reduce the quality of the tear film.” Stress may also interrupt the normal blink frequency and quality, leading to increased evaporation and poorer tear quality. 

2. Heart disease

Heart disease is no joke, and stress can directly impact our heart in a few ways.

Stress can directly increase heart rate and blood flow, and causes the release of cholesterol and triglycerides into the bloodstream,” warns Dr. Chris Norris, a chartered physiotherapist and neurologist with board certification in sleep medicine.

It's also possible that stress is related to other problems — an increased likelihood of smoking, or obesity — that indirectly increase heart risks. Emotional stress can be a trigger for serious cardiac problems, including heart attacks.

RELATED: The Scary Truth About What Happens To Your Body When You're Stressed

3. Sleep disorders

Chronic stress can interfere with sleep, leading to restless nights and decreasing the quality of rest.

“[Stress] leads to either a continually elevated cortisol level, or a continually suppressed level,” says Dr. Bonnie Gasquet, medical director of Wellness Jar Medical Spa.

“Either way, your cortisol levels never 'reset' under chronic stress. The natural course of life is that when we go to sleep, cortisol is lowered and melatonin rises to promote sleep. As you can see, the cascade being disrupted, even in this one area, can start you in the path to poor sleep by default."

4. Asthma

Stress can worsen asthma symptoms. These symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing.

These are all also symptoms of COVID-19, so the last thing you want is to have symptoms of one, think it's the other, and the cause actually just be stress.

“Stress triggers the immune system and aggravates the release of certain hormones. This can result in inflammation within the airways of the lungs, triggering an asthma attack,” Dr. Norris reveals.

5. Hair loss

Ever say you're so stressed by something that you begin to tear out your hair? Well, that can be true in a non-literal way.

Says board certified dermatologist, Dr. Michelle Henry, “Hair loss usually occurs within three months of a stressful event — in this case, the pandemic — so we are right around the time where you may start to notice increased hair loss. Of course, we need to check for other potential triggers before making a diagnosis, but I’ve seen more and more patients looking for solutions for hair loss right now.”

6. Skin breakouts 

Your oil glands are directly affected by cortisol, which is your body’s stress hormone. Research reveals that when you’re stressed, your sebum production may go out of balance.

“An imbalance of oil production is often an underlying cause of breakouts. The problem is that people often try to remedy the oil imbalance without considering what’s causing it: stress,” asserts Caleb Backe, health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics.

7. Gum disease

Stress can exacerbate periodontal (gum) disease. This is not typically a hot topic, especially compared to heart disease, but it's an extremely important one to keep in mind.

“The mouth is the gateway to our bodies, and the bacteria located there have a prime opportunity to travel throughout the body and increase inflammation,” says Elliot Reimers, certified nutrition coach at Rave Reviews.

“Inflammation is a fancy word for specialized white blood cells that help fight infection and clean up dangerous debris (think: plaque in the arteries). Out of control inflammation is an exaggerated immune response that is unequal to the provoking mechanism. It's this out of control inflammation that damages gum tissue and bone levels around the teeth that we see with periodontal disease (and consequently damages arteries to promote plaque formation),” Reimers adds.

Normal cortisol levels help to regulate the inflammatory response to keep it in check. Excess chronic levels of cortisol fail to regulate this response.

In January 2018, The Journal of Oral Medicine and Surgery discussed behavior and biological perspectives for the increased severity of gum disease in response to chronic, excess stress.

RELATED: 3 Common Health Conditions You Probably Had No Idea Can Be Caused By Stress

8. Obesity

Chronic stress leads to “comfort eating,” which often involves the overeating of foods that are high in fat, sugar and calories. This, in turn, can lead to weight gain.

"Chronic stress increases the release of a stress hormone called cortisol, and that seems to increase the amount of fat that's deposited in the abdomen,” Dr. Norris says.

While it's hard to undo our mental association between eating and comfort, trying to comfort eat with healthy veggies and whole grains is always a better move than ice cream and chips.

9. Diabetes

Stress is a potential contributor to chronic hyperglycemia in diabetes.

As Dr. Norris describes, “Stress also results in unhealthy eating and drinking that raises the glucose level in people with type 2 diabetes. People who are stressed may have higher levels of certain hormones that can affect how insulin works.”

If you're feeling stressed, your body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This should give you an energy boost for a "fight or flight" response. But the hormones actually make it harder for insulin to work properly, known as insulin resistance.

"When stressed, the body prepares itself by ensuring that enough sugar or energy is readily available. Insulin levels fall, glucagon and epinephrine (adrenaline) levels rise, and more glucose is released from the liver," says Dr. Norris. 

Some people with type 2 diabetes are very sensitive to stress. It causes the body to produce especially high levels of stress hormones, which drive blood sugar levels up.

10. Headaches

Anxiety is known to cause excessive worrying, irritability, and restlessness. Anxiety headaches are another physical symptom that cannot be ignored, as headaches have the power to be debilitating and get in the way of our ability to function.

Headaches are more likely to occur when you're anxious and stressed. Stress is a common trigger of tension-type headaches and migraines, and can trigger other types of headaches or make them worse,” warns Dr. Norris. 

11. Depression and anxiety

Chronic stress is connected with higher rates of depression and anxiety

“Sustained or chronic stress, in particular, leads to elevated hormones such as cortisol, the 'stress hormone,' and reduced serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine, which has been linked to depression,” said Dr. Norris. 

As depression and anxiety can have extreme results, even taking of one's own life, it's something that needs to be managed by a medical professional, just as any other health problem would be.

RELATED: How To Cope With Extreme Stress — Without Turning To Bad Habits

12. Gastrointestinal problems

Sometimes we talk about how anxiety or stress is so severe, it's making us sick to our stomach. This is actually a real phenomenon!

“Stress may cause a decrease in blood flow and oxygen to the stomach, which could lead to cramping, inflammation, or an imbalance of gut bacteria,” Dr. Norris explains. Furthermore, stress can also worsen gastrointestinal issues, such as chronic heartburn (or gastroesophageal reflux disease, GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

13. Alzheimer's disease

Stress might worsen Alzheimer's Disease, causing its brain lesions to form more quickly. As this is a devastating diagnosis, it's important to avoid the symptoms coming along for as long as possible.

Dr. Norris adds, “Some researchers speculate that reducing stress has the potential to slow down the progression of the disease.”

14. Accelerated aging

You know how presidents always look older at the end of their term? Or, how people look visibly older after an illness or a traumatic life event? There's actually evidence that stress can affect how you age

“People who suffer from chronic stress have chromosomes altered that show the effects of accelerated aging. Stress seems to accelerate aging about 9 to 17 additional years,” says Dr. Norris.

15. Premature death

There are a number of ways chronic stress can kill you, from heart disease, to blood pressure, to obesity and so much more. None are very pleasant and all are avoidable.

”That includes increased levels of cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone. Elevated cortisol levels interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, and increase blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease. Individuals who perceived that stress affects their health and reported a large amount of stress had an increased risk of premature death,” said Dr. Norris. 

16. Erectile dysfunction

Studies show a strong correlation between stress and erectile dysfunction in men. 

“Chronic stress causes a drop in testosterone production, in turn decreasing sperm production, which relies on testosterone. Stress also disrupts communication between the brain and penis; this inhibits blood flow to the genitals and prevents an erection,” warns Vinay Amin, CEO of Eu Natural.

RELATED: Why Chronic Stress Is So Harmful To Your Body — And Relationship

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Aly Walansky is a NY-based lifestyles writer who focuses on health, wellness, and relationships. Her work appears in dozens of digital and print publications regularly. Visit her on Twitter or email her.