What Stress Does to Your Body
By Naomi Barr
The human body is well adapted to deal with short-term stress, but if it
remains on orange alert for an extended period of time, you can grow vulnerable
to some serious health problems. Here's how major systems respond to your
The "fight or flight" response begins here: When you're stressed,
the brain's sympathetic nerves signal the adrenal glands to release a chemical
variety pack, including epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and cortisol. Persistently
high levels of these chemicals may impair memory and learning, and up your odds
Stress hormones trigger the liver to produce more blood sugar, to give you
that kick of energy in the moment of perceived danger. But if the
"danger" you're concerned with is a long-term dilemma and you're
already at risk for type 2 diabetes, bad news: Elevated glucose levels may turn
you into a card-carrying diabetic.
At high-stress moments, you may find yourself breathing faster, feeling
short of breath, or even hyperventilating. Over the long term, this strain on
the system can make you more susceptible to upper-respiratory infections (so if
you're considering a career in air-traffic control, you might want to stock up
Momentary, acute stress, like, say, when you're walking down the aisle to
get married, will make your heart beat faster and blood pressure rise.
Long-term stress, like unwelcome pressure from the folks to produce offspring,
can cause narrowing of the arteries and elevate cholesterol levels, upping your
chances of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Stress can lengthen or shorten your menstrual cycle, stop it altogether, or
make your periods more painful. High levels of stress make bacterial vaginosis
(BV) more likely and, during pregnancy, may increase the chance of your baby's
developing asthma or allergies later in life. Bring on the prenatal yoga.
Short-term stress can actually boost the immune system, helping your body
fight infection. Ongoing stress, however, turns things in the other direction,
possibly slowing wound healing, leaving you more susceptible to infection, and
worsening skin conditions such as eczema, hives, and yes — acne.