Too much stress can negatively affect your health

Pamela Egan Practical Practitioner


By: Pamela Egan, FNP-C CDE



Too much stress can negatively affect your health



Dear Pam,

I have diabetes and have been under a tremendous amount of stress. Can stress affect my blood sugars?

I often have patients ask me if stress has an affect on their diabetes, high blood pressure or depression. We all know what it’s like to be under stress. And we now know it can take a toll on our health from headaches to insomnia to serious illness.

In prehistoric times, the physical changes in response to stress were an essential adaptation for meeting natural threats. Even in the modern world the stress response can be an asset for raising levels of performance during critical events such as a sports activity, an important meeting or in situations of actual danger or crisis.

If stress becomes persistent, all parts of the body’s stress system (the brain, heart, lungs, vessels and muscles) become chronically over activated.

This may produce physical or psychological damage over time. Certainly, stress diminishes the quality of life by reducing feelings of pleasure and accomplishment, and relationships are often threatened.

To answer your question, chronic stress has been associated with the development of insulin-resistance, a primary factor in diabetes. As the body works less effectively, the blood sugars go up. Chronic stress also appears to dampen the immune response and increase the risk for infections. In some studies, stressful events that resulted in a higher incidence of infections were interpersonal conflicts, such as those at work or in a marriage.

Stress may negatively affect the heart, may contribute to cancer growth, predispose to gastrointestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Stress can have varying effects on weight.

The tensions of unresolved stress frequently cause insomnia, generally keeping the stressed person awake or causing awakening in the middle of the night or early morning.

Muscular and joint pain, as well as headaches, are frequently associated with stress. Sexual, reproductive and erectile dysfunction are also affected by stress.

Even good stress, such as a promotion at work, the birth of a child or a transfer to a new state, can cause problems if we don’t learn to manage it effectively.

Now there’s evidence that even short-term stress can cause lasting physical changes in the brain.

A research team at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem looked at what happened to mouse brain cells and to live mice following brief exposure to different types of stress. These findings appear in the Jan.18 issue of Science. They found that within minutes of exposure, brain nerve cells, or neurons, became hypersensitive. And the change lasted for several weeks – long after the stress was gone. The researchers saw that a specific brain molecule had changed in a subtle but important way. This molecule normally produces a protein that removes a certain neurotransmitter. And this led to communication problems in the brain, problems that looked very similar to the behavior and memory symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

People under chronic stress frequently seek relief through drug relief through drug or alcohol abuse, tobacco use, abnormal eating patterns or passive activities, such as watching television.

Drinking four or five cups of coffee can cause changes in blood pressure and stress hormone levels similar to those produced by chronic stress.

This article was originally published January 28, 2002 in The St. Tammany News. > Health Articles > Health and Wellness