Can Stress Really Make Us Sick?

A businesswoman with a headache pressing her fingertips against her temples

What is health? A check-up with your doctor often focuses on making sure we are not sick – checking our blood pressure, cholesterol, pap smears and other general tests. These are all excellent things we must keep on top of, but they do not necessarily give a full picture of our “health”. You can have great check-up results but still be unhealthy. That is because health, or wholeness, is not just a physical concern. Health starts with something only we can do for ourselves – focusing on well-being, both mentally and emotionally. This in turn leads to promoting a healthy body.

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Doctors, herbs and medicines do not heal us. These options give our bodies the right building blocks to work with in order for our body to heal itself. When you cut your finger, for example, your body sends special substances called platelets to form a seal at that spot to protect the body from germs and bacteria. The hole eventually closes up like nothing ever happened. This kind of repair is happening at every minute of every day in our bodies by our immune system. We have cancer cells popping up daily, we are constantly bombarded by toxins in our food/air/water, and we are always exposed to bacteria and viruses. Yet most of us do not get sick from these things at the same rate we are exposed to them. Why is that? Because of a healthy immune system. It works on a minute to minute basis to keep our bodies in a constant state of healing.

“Feeling stressed,” however, makes the immune system unhealthy. Feeling stressed sets off a set of hormones and messenger chemicals that get the body ready for the “fight or flight” – the same system that goes into action when the body is in danger. Your blood pressure goes up, the heart pumps faster and the immune system shuts off. This system works great when there is real physical danger because you want to be using all your energy to get away or defend yourself. But it does not work well when it is always “on” due to feeling stressed – from bills, traffic, arguing with family, the boss at work and deadlines. You know the drill. This constant state of being stressed often leads to the common ailments we experience.

Here are just five common ways this happens:

1. Headaches

With stress, certain hormones set off a series of events in your brain that stimulates your nerves and causes your blood vessels to swell. In many people this is felt as tension headaches and migraines.

2. Stomach Upset/ Reflux/ Irritable Bowel Disease

Chronic stress, and its sister emotion anxiety, lead the body to make more stomach acid, which in turn leads to heartburn. The stomach also can take longer to empty food, which causes gas and bloating, and cause the intestines to contract more, leading to cramping and diarrhea.

3. Colds and Flu

Stress suppresses the immune system, making you susceptible to catching airborne illnesses. In a study at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, researchers surveyed volunteers about what was going on in their lives and then infected them with a cold virus. The men and women coping with stresses, ranging from a bad marriage to unemployment, were twice as likely to get sick as those with fewer problems.

4. Weight Gain

Under stress, the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released. With chronic exposure, these stimulate hunger since your body assumes you will need energy to defend yourself. We often respond to this hunger by eating the items which will provide the quickest energy – fats and carbs. This of course leads to weight gain.

5. Neck and Back Pain

Stress triggers the nervous system to reduce blood flow to the muscles, which makes them prone to spasms. In addition, our posture when stressed tends to suffer since we tend to hunch over and tense the shoulder and neck muscles, making the muscle tension worse.