Stress is unavoidable and is a kind of protective mechanism. There are many effects of stress on the body. Acute stress may cause a sudden rise in adrenaline levels and energy levels and help protect from specific threats as it initiates a “fight or flight” reaction.
However, chronic stress is altogether a different thing. It increases the risk of various disorders. Chronic stress may be in reaction to real or even perceived threats like the worry of losing a job, financial issues, family problems, issues with kids, and so on. Unfortunately, most people fail to control it adequately, forcing the body to stay in stress mode and secreting stress hormones.
Effects of Stress on the Body
Chronic stress is a psychological issue that begins in the brain. Stress results in the initiation of the so-called hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical (HPA) axis. HPA axis response starts with the release of a hormone that stimulates the pituitary gland in the brain. The pituitary gland then releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which increases cortisol levels.
Cortisol is quite comparable to adrenaline but has much milder and broader actions on the body. Unlike adrenaline, it is for countering the continuous low-level threat. Cortisol increases blood glucose levels, suppresses immune responses, and has a behavior-modifying effect.
Cortisol modifies behavior in a way that may be protective. Thus, a person may avoid exercise, work harder, consume higher calories, may engage in smoking and alcohol consumption. However, the long-term effects of cortisol are ultimately bad for health.
Researchers think that although changes caused by a few weeks of stress may be reversible, but it is challenging to reverse these changes if they last longer. Prolonged unmanaged stress causes a state of being “stressed out”. It requires much more significant lifestyle changes.
Further, it is also worth noticing that chronic stress also increases the risk of obesity. It also influences the working of various other organs like kidneys and liver. Cortisol lowers immunity. Cortisol increases levels of glucagon and thus blood glucose levels and insulin resistance.
Those living with chronic and unmanaged stress are at elevated risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, depression, sleep disorders, and even dementia.
Stress and High Blood Pressure
Studies show that Indians are particularly prone to chronic stress. Things are made worse because adults in India are also less likely to engage in modern intensity exercise or take steps to manage chronic stress. Researchers are unsure if it is due to genetics or it is something cultural. Nonetheless, studies show that Indian immigrants living in the UK or US are also more prone to stress and cardiovascular disease than whites. In fact, studies show that although the population of South Asia is 25% of the global population, but 50% of heart attack occurs in this geographic zone.
Stress is not the only contributing factor to the high risk of cardiovascular diseases, but definitely one of the major contributing factors. There could be many underlying mechanisms, and not all are fully explainable by science. Nonetheless, it appears that high cortisol has something to do with it.
Further, stress increases the risk of hypertension. Those living with stress have higher levels of vasopressin. It is a hormone that causes vasoconstriction and higher blood pressure. Its continually high level due to stress may make arteries stiff, and cause changes in the kidney, thus causing hypertension.
In one of the large-scale studies, researchers tried to know if stress indeed increases the risk of heart disease or not. In the INTERHEART study, done in 52 countries and 24767 subjects, researchers compared those living with high stress with those with low-stress levels. They found that permanent stress related to work and home increased the risk of heart attack (myocardial infarction) by 2.17 times.
There is no doubt that stress increases the risk of hypertension and heart attack. It may also increase the risk of various other ailments by promoting unhealthy behavior. Many unhealthy responses like binge eating, smoking, alcohol consumptions are frequently a response to chronic stress. These unhealthy responses may even help in the short run. However, in the long run, they considerably increase the risk of various chronic ailments.
Even worst, people with chronic stress are less likely to engage in healthy habits like exercise, practicing a restrictive diet.
Thus, to prevent hypertension and heart attack, the starting point may be to counter chronic stress and understand its grave role in health. One may reduce stress by making significant lifestyle changes through exercise, practicing healthy hobbies, yoga, and even religious practices.