Stressproof Your Body

There’s a certain sort of woman who mind-body expert Alice Domar, PhD, sees all too often: the type with a high-octane life who has no idea that her stress levels are sabotaging her health. “One woman had two kids and worked 80 hours a week,” recalls Domar, who is executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Waltham, Mass. “She came to me because she was thinking of trying for a third child and was concerned about her irregular periods—but when I took a complete history, I found out that she had a host of physical symptoms, including frequent headaches and insomnia. It never occurred to her that they had anything to do with her intense lifestyle.”

That’s the insidious thing about stress: It infiltrates our bodies even as our heads are spinning. And it’s ever-present; The American Psychological Association reports that 42 percent of Americans say their stress levels have shot up in the last five years. Left untreated, stress can lead to serious ills, including heart disease, depression, anxiety and diabetes. It could even speed up the spread of breast and ovarian cancers, research suggests. Untamed tension may also pop up as aches and ills that make us feel crummy on a daily basis.

As annoying as those eye twitches and stomach knots are, we should be thanking our bodies for the heads-up, doctors say. “Physical symptoms that accompany stress are part of the body’s warning system,” notes Darshan Mehta, MD, medical director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Institute for Mind-Body Medicine in Boston. They nudge you to take better care of yourself. Ahead, everything you’ve wondered about stress and your health but were too frazzled to ask.

Why does stress have a physical effect if it’s a mental thing?

Forget your tyrant boss; blame the woolly rhinoceros. “Stress activates a psychophysiologic response—the mind perceives a threat or emergency and your body reacts,” explains Michael McKee, PhD, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. You’re probably familiar with the fight-or-flight effect: Your system churns out the stress chemicals adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol, causing your heart to race and blood pressure to increase as oxygen goes to your large muscles. In the Stone Age, this response would save us from danger. Today it basically causes our brain to overreact, interpreting mildly stressful situations (like planning Thanksgiving dinner for 25 people) as run-for-the-hills emergencies. Over time, constantly cycling into a revved-up state can cause wear and tear on the heart, muscles and brain.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University recently discovered why frequently having high levels of cortisol can do damage. Cortisol helps turn off inflammation in the body, but prolonged stress makes immune cells insensitive to the hormone’s regulatory effect. As a result, the inflammatory response that the immune system normally launches to protect the body goes into overdrive. That excess inflammation may lead to everything from the common cold to, in the long run, heart attacks, stroke and autoimmune disorders. One new study revealed that people under significant pressure at work had a 45 percent higher risk of type 2 diabetes.

Do events like a death or divorce affect you more than everyday hassles?

Both acute stress and the daily kind can do harm, weakening your immunity and triggering flare-ups of migraines, irritable bowel syndrome and arthritis. “Chronic activation of your stress response can contribute to disease,” Dr. Mehta says. One study from Pennsylvania State University discovered that people who got distressed by little annoyances were more likely to have chronic health conditions such as arthritis-induced pain 10 years later.

A key aid to weathering life’s drama: friends. Research shows that when faced with a big upset, many of us cope by leaning on social supports; that dramatically reduces stress and strengthens resilience. Thing is, little hassles have a way of getting under your skin—you’re not receiving support for the irritation you feel about a long grocery store line (except maybe from your mother).

Stress makes my lower back ache. My husband gets headaches. Why is that?

Everyone has his or her weak health spot. Think about it: Maybe you always get chest colds, say, while your husband sails through winter with just the sniffles (but he’s knocked flat by stomach bugs). “Stress impacts all your systems—musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, gastro-intestinal, respiratory, everything,” McKee says. “But some systems are stronger than others, and stress produces the worst symptoms in the most vulnerable ones.”

How come some people wig out more than others?

It’s nature and nurture. We model our parents’ reactions to stress, experts say, and also have a genetic predisposition to be reactive or calm. One study commissioned by the National Institutes of Health found that we inherit varying amounts of neuropeptide Y, an anxiety-reducing compound released during stress.

Can stress affect how you age?

Yes (sorry). Stress has been shown to impact aging at the cellular level. The journal Plos One recently published two studies showing that stress may mess with telomeres, caps on the ends of our chromosomes that protect DNA as it replicates. Telomeres (like most of us) get shorter with age—and, as it turns out, with high levels of stress. As telomeres dwindle, genetic material can be damaged, leading to cell death. Meanwhile, researchers suspect that high cortisol levels from chronic stress break down the proteins collagen and elastin, responsible for skin elasticity—bringing us one step closer to looking like Abe Lincoln after the Civil War.

Obviously, we all need to manage stress. Since I can’t join a monastery, how do I deal?

Exercise is all-important, and not just for the endorphin rush: A mere 42 minutes of vigorous activity over a three-day period can reduce the impact of stress on telomere length, say scientists at the University of California San Francisco. A balanced diet and adequate sleep are also essential (go easy on the brownies and late-night binges of Orange Is the New Black). Getting lost in a hobby is another proven tension tamer—so when you’re playing Candy Crush or shopping for shoes, you can indignantly tell your family that you’re doing it for your health.

Mind-body techniques are especially beneficial. A recent Carnegie Mellon study found that just three 25-minute sessions of meditation alleviates stress. Tai chi is receiving a lot of health buzz—one recent review of 40 studies published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine pointed to its stress-lowering properties. Sometimes described as meditation in motion, it calms nerves with deep breathing and improves flexibility.

In the end, nothing will help your stressed-out self if you ignore your symptoms. “The one point I make to patients all the time is that the body and brain are not subtle about telling you when you’re stressed,” Domar says. “When you get regular headaches or you’re not sleeping well, stop and think to yourself, What’s going on? Don’t just pop pills and plow ahead.”


This is your body on stress

Heart

During moments of high anxiety, stress hormones narrow the arteries in the heart and increase heart rate, which over time may raise your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Fertility

Stress can alter signals to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates hormones that trigger ovaries to release eggs each month. Plus, high levels of stress hormones also impact the body’s main reproductive hormone, GnRH.

Brain

A steady flow of cortisol from chronic stress can damage your short-term memory; stress can actually reduce gray matter.

Nose

Persistent tension can cause seasonal allergy flare-ups, per a new study, possibly because it prompts a negative immune response.

Mouth

Stress hormones mobilize energy to muscles; at night, some people may release it by grinding their teeth (aka bruxism), causing jaw pain and headaches.

Back

Adrenaline from the sympathetic nervous system alerts muscles to tense up in preparation for action. Pain and spasms in your neck and back may result, especially if they’re weak spots for you.

Your waistline

Anxiety can hurt your metabolism, per a new study: Women who experienced one or more stressful events during the previous 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories in the seven hours after eating a high-fat meal than those who stayed stress-free.

Stomach

Stress slows the GI tract’s movement and digestive process while upping the chances of inflammation (which can lead to pain, gas or diarrhea). Research shows that stress can even change the balance of gut bacteria, weakening your entire immune system.


5 Little Habits that Keep You Zen

Take the scenic route.

While any bit of exercise is a stress reducer, strolling in nature is ideal. One Japanese study found a link between chemicals released by trees, called phytoncides, and lowered levels of stress hormones.

Turn off the pinging.

A British study of office workers found that when they read and sent email, their heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels spiked. Before you check Gmail again, ask yourself, Can it wait? (Yes, it can.)

Have a happy cry.

Click on the Huffington Post’s ‘Good News’ section and watch a soldier reuniting with his toddler. Chemicals that build up during stress may be released through tears.

Look silly, feel better.

A trick to try from Steve Kravitz, a Nashville physical therapist: “Hold your ears midway down with two fingers, in line with your ear canal. Gently pull both at a 45-degree angle away from your head and hold for 60 seconds. This calms the nerves that surround the central nervous system.”

Get more magnesium.

This vital mineral is depleted quickly when you’re under duress—and it’s a vicious cycle because without enough, you feel more emotional and reactive, says New York City nutritionist Dana James. Eat more dark, leafy greens (think spinach and kale). Or down a smoothie with magnesium-rich bananas, cocoa and almond milk.


Position Yourself Calm

Three ways to keep your body more relaxed—and less prone to tightening up from anxiety:

At your computer

The ideal posture, per Gerard Girasole, MD, and Cara Hartman, co-authors of The 7-Minute Back Pain Solution: Knees should be even with hips (if not, use a footstool) and your computer monitor at eye level. And don’t cradle your phone between your shoulder and ear, which strains the neck.

When you’re driving

To minimize upper-back strain, hold the wheel in the “3 and 9 position.” Traffic at a standstill? Do this relaxer from Health fitness contributor Kristin McGee: Turn to your right, reaching your left arm for the passenger seat. Inhale and exhale deeply for two breaths before twisting to the other side.

While you sleep

“Sleeping on your stomach or curled into a ball can tense up your back, neck or spine,” cautions Deborah Carr, PhD, author of Worried Sick: How Stress Hurts Us and How to Bounce Back. Train yourself to sleep on your back; after a couple of weeks, it should feel more natural.

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