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We all have stress. Traffic. Taxes. A husband who can't find the dishwasher. Crying babies. Failed relationships. A looming deadline at work. But when stress snowballs, it can take a serious toll on our bodies.
Stress can cause our hair to fall out, our bodies to stop menstruating, our joints to ache. It can lower the effectiveness of vaccines. A recent study by the Harvard University School of Public Health, in Boston, found that a stressful job can be as harmful to a woman's heart as smoking. Another, by Swedish researchers, concluded that women with marital stress are significantly more likely to suffer heart disease.
"The trouble starts when the body is subjected to constant stress," says Richard Shelton, M.D., a professor at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in Nashville, Tennessee. "The fight-or-flight response caused by stress is supposed to be brief. But that's often not the case anymore. Acute stress has given way to chronic stress, which can be harmful."
This kind of constant stress can cause permanent damage by attacking each of us at our particular weak points. It can make us more susceptible to bothersome illnesses, like the common cold, and potentially fatal ones, like cancer. Researchers believe 80 percent of all diseases are linked to or aggravated by chronic stress, says Georgia Witkin, author of The Female Stress Syndrome.
The good news is that as soon as we feel calmer, our bodies begin to repair the problems caused by short-term stress. Just thinking about something relaxing releases hormones that make us feel better. And a few simple things -- a shared laugh, a couple of deep breaths -- can counter the effects of stress. Read on to find out the price our bodies pay for stress -- and how to stem the damage.How stress affects your body
It takes only a fraction of a second for stress, whether it's thinking about work or a loud noise, to set off a chain reaction that affects everything from our eyesight to the muscles in our legs. The response begins in the brain, where the hypothalamus releases a fight-or-flight chemical called Corticotropin Releasing Hormone (CRH). CRH travels to our pituitary gland, which secretes Adrenocorticotropin Hormone (ACTH), which travels to the adrenal glands on top of our kidneys. The result is adrenaline, a powerful stimulant. In an instant these changes occur: Vision sharpens; hearing improves; the thyroid speeds up; breathing becomes rapid and shallow; blood pressure rises; digestion slows; muscles tense; blood sugar level rises.
Stress begins in the brain, with a surge of hormones causing intense alertness. In this hyped state, we can't relax or sleep. But our minds can't function at this extreme level for prolonged periods: Eventually, the hormone surges and exhaustion cause tension headaches, irritability, aggression, inability to concentrate and memory loss.
Unchecked stress can also trigger depression, which strikes twice as many women as men. Stress suppresses the hypothalamus, the emotion control center in our brains, curbing the production of the hormones that energize us and make us feel joyful, says Witkin.Eyes
The adrenaline rush from stress dilates the eyes, improving vision. But it also triggers eye ticks because eye muscles become fatigued. Eyes may bulge if stress overstimulates the thyroid gland.Mouth
Dry mouth, bad breath and difficulty swallowing occur when stress makes us take short, shallow breaths. Under constant stress, some people clench their jaws or grind their teeth.Ears
The surging hormones induced by stress improve our hearing to help us react to danger. But better hearing can actually be bad for the body: A recent Cornell University study concluded that even moderate noise elevates heart-damaging stress hormones. Studies have also shown that a lot of small noisy stressors added together -- honking horns, ringing telephones and loud co-workers -- can be more dangerous to the body than one major stressful event.
Considered a barometer of inner health, hair is often the first to suffer. A body under stress burns nutrients, like the vitamin selenium, and that can lead to dull hair and premature graying. Chronic stress can trigger the autoimmune system to attack hair follicles, causing hair to fall out completely or in clumps.Lungs
One of the first things we do when we feel stressed is hyperventilate. It's part of the body's fight-or-flight response -- in case we're in danger and need the extra oxygen in our bloodstream to run for cover. Those quick breaths can cause dizziness and sharp pains in the diaphragm. Severe stress can aggravate asthma and other dangerous respiratory conditions.Heart
A heart under stress pumps fast and hard. Blood pressure rises as the body produces the hormones epinephrine and cortisol. That can lead to heart palpitations and chest pains. In those with heart disease, stress can prevent blood from clotting properly and stimulate the formation of plaque that plugs arteries.
Researchers say that even thinking about something stressful raises blood pressure. And a Swedish study concluded that stressful romantic relationships were more damaging to a woman's heart than work-related stress: Women in troubled marriages were three times more likely to be hospitalized for heart problems.Immune system
Ever get sick after a stressful event? Extreme and constant stress lowers our white blood cell count, making us more susceptible to disease and hampering our body's ability to heal itself. One recent study showed that the pneumonia vaccine was less effective in people under constant stress. Meanwhile, researchers are studying the link between stress and autoimmune disorders like Graves Disease, in which antibodies attack the thyroid, eye muscles and skin.
Stress causes hormones to be released that make acne, rashes and itchy patches worse. Some people blush, while others go pale when the small blood cells in the skin contract. Under extreme stress, people can become covered in hives. "Any skin problem will get worse when you are stressed," says Jim Baral, M.D., a dermatologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital, in New York City.Joints , muscles and bones
At tense moments, our brain sends messages to the muscles, tightening them and preparing them for action. Chronic stress can aggravate rheumatoid arthritis, cause sore muscles and make us prone to sprains. Women who suffered chronic stress had lower bone density, according to a 1996 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.Digestive system
Under stress, the brain shifts blood flow away from the digestive tract, which slows digestion. The result: indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, incontinence and colon spasms. Stress increases acid production, aggravating ulcers. It is also linked to colitis and irritable bowel syndrome, painful and sometimes debilitating digestive disorders.
"Stress can be linked to digestive problems, so we routinely question patients about their life when taking a history of their symptoms," says Tarun Mullick, M.D., a gastroenterologist at The Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio.Reproductive system
Stress can halt menstruation, inhibit ovulation and cause premature birth and loss of libido. Doctors speculate stress-related infertility is the body's way of keeping us from becoming pregnant and giving birth under dangerous conditions. A University of California study showed that the stress hormones released by a pregnant woman can make her baby more prone to stress and the accompanying risk of heart attack. Stress may also contribute to the inability to achieve orgasm and may cause painful sex and premenstrual syndrome.
Tips from top stress experts:
Exercise. Just 30 minutes three times a week triggers hormones that relax the body and boost the immune system.
Try yoga. Many doctors are so sure it relieves stress they send patients with high blood pressure to classes.
Watch your diet. Stress elevates blood insulin levels, so you'll be hungry. Avoid sweets, which will only raise insulin levels higher and make you hungrier. Eat food high in protein during the day to keep you full-and alert. Fruits and vegetables will help counter stress effects on skin and hair, while dairy products protect bones.
Chill out. Allot three hours on Saturday for chores, then go have fun. Massage, meditation and breathing exercises relieve tension. Take up crossword puzzles or play card games to distract you from stress while stimulating you mentally. --Robin Uris