When people think about the most common lifestyle factors that contribute to disease, they will likely point to poor diet, lack of activity, or smoking. But very few people realize that chronic stress is the leading factor in disease and illness. Many of the daily habits, routines, and even relationships that we often take for granted as unavoidable, may be causing a greater toll on our health than we realize.
Your stress response system is brilliantly designed to handle short term acute stressors – like a predator chasing you. It’s the classic “fight or flight” scenario—you’re on a morning run, you see a bear in your path. You register the threat and a whole cascade of events begin: your body releases glucose into your blood, your heart rate spikes, and your blood increases coagulation so that the heightened levels of energy and oxygen can help you run or fight. Systems that are not needed for a life and death fight like digestion, reproduction and immune responses go dormant. You are primed to survive.
But what happens when you experience stressful situations that do not pose a life or death threat? And what happens when these stressors are present for a much more prolonged period of time than your stress response system is designed to handle? Your brain does not know the difference between stressors like predators and stressors like deadlines, traffic, or financial pressure. These types of stressors are ongoing, so the stress response is triggered so often that it gets stuck in the “on” position.
The same systems designed to help when you are escaping a short term threat begin to do long term damage when left in the “on” position for an extended period of time. Inflammation, meant to heal, causes a whole range of damage in the body. Increased blood pressure increases your risk for heart attack and stroke. Your immune system doesn’t know who the good guys and who the bad guys are and begins to attack itself resulting in autoimmune conditions.
Chronic stress also leads to behaviors that may seem to alleviate stress in the short term, but actually lead to serious long term health risks. Smoking, drinking, and overeating are all common coping behaviors that people tend to rely on to manage stress. Beyond physical health, your mental health also suffers. Anxiety and Depression are triggered by stressful events.
Since there is no end to this type of stress, it is cumulative and builds into what researchers call your allostatic load or the amount of stress you are carrying around with you. It is subtle and you may not even think you are “stressed”, but science shows that as allostatic load increases, disease and mental disorders increase as well.
Chronic prolonged stress also disrupts our body’s work/rest cycles. You know you need sleep to recover from the activities of the day. You know you need recovery time from strenuous workouts. But how often do you pay attention to the amount of stress you are carrying, and what you are doing to manage it?
Pushing through the stress may make you look strong on the outside, but it is beating you up on the inside. Your adrenal system controls your stress response and when it is overtaxed, it wears down and dysfunction occurs. Your body is so busy controlling the effects of chronic stress that it has less and less time to work on restoring health. Your sleep quality and mood go down, inflammation, anxiety and pain increases all in an effort to signal you that something is amiss.
Recent scientific research is finding that Telomeres can be excellent indicators of your overall heath and longevity. Telomeres are sections of DNA at the end of your chromosomes that protect your genetic information like the plastic tips of shoelaces protect them from fraying. Telomeres have been found to be a strong predictor of longevity. Both chronic and perceived stress have been linked to shorter telomeres in studies connecting heightened stress with shorter life spans.
So in today’s world where stress seems inevitable, how does one go about protecting oneself from the disease inducing effects of stress? Not surprisingly, the same healthy habits and behaviors that typically go out the window during times of stress (making time for exercise, focusing on healthy eating, prioritizing proper sleep), are the very things needed to get your body back on track to feeling better and living longer. Making time for yourself by scheduling workouts, planning a hike with a friend, fueling the body with healthy food, and allowing the brain and the nervous system to “re-set” through sleep are all strategies that can not only reduce stress, but also lead to better health and a longer life. Seeking social support, exercise, healthy eating, and relaxation techniques are all important ways to lighten your allostatic load.
Finally, just as we now know that the overactive stress response eventually leads to poor health and chronic disease, the single most helpful thing you can do to help your body in times of stress is to make sure you are helping your body “switch lanes” and down-regulate by getting the proper quantity and quality of sleep. Yes, if there is a magic bullet for stress, sleep would be it. So if you have been dealing with a lot of stress recently, set some small daily goals that are achievable: commit to eating healthier meals at regular intervals, make time to be active, establish a bedtime ritual that will help you get to sleep on time. By creating new habits to help yourself manage stress, you will feel a sense of commitment which will then lead to a greater sense of positivity in your life.