Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Stress and Your Health

"The brain is the central organ of stress," says McEwen. Not only does the brain perceive what is threatening, it activates the hormonal systems within the body and responds to those hormones, he says.  

Under normal conditions, the brain turns on these responses in a balanced way, and turns them off again when the danger has passed. However, when we experience toxic stress, these systems are pushed beyond their limits, McEwen says. Our brains secrete stress hormones, which may disrupt our metabolic and inflammatory systems. This can sometimes lower our resistance to illness. Stress affects the brain too, causing changes in its structure and connectivity. These changes are reversible in the short-term, but may be permanent over the long-term, he says.  

Stress can also trigger certain unhealthy ways of coping. Many of us respond to stress by eating high-fat, high-calorie comfort foods, smoking, drinking too much, not sleeping, and not exercising. It's the combination of changes in the body from the stress response, combined with our behavioral and emotional responses to stress that may lead to chronic health problems. These include:

  • Cardiovascular disease. Stress does not directly cause heart disease. However, stress can put a strain on the heart and blood vessels, thereby contributing to heart disease.
  • Diabetes. Stress can make it hard to follow your diabetes treatment plan, which can lead to poor health. Stress also directly increases glucose levels, especially in people with type 2 diabetes.
  • Anxiety and depression. It's no surprise that ongoing stress can wear you down mentally, and if severe, lead to anxiety and depression.
  • Asthma. Stress does not cause asthma, but it can trigger asthma attacks and worsen symptoms.
  • Obesity. In many people, stress can lead to overeating. But that's not all. High levels of stress may increase the risk for visceral fat. This type of fat develops around waist and the organs in the abdomen, causing metabolic changes that can lead to diabetes and heart disease.
  • Skin conditions. Stress can trigger or aggravate skin symptoms in people with psoriasis and eczema. Stress management may help control these conditions.
  • Stomach problems. No, stress does not cause ulcers. But it can worsen symptoms of ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Acne. One large study confirmed what many teenagers already know: high levels of stress makes acne worse in teens.

Of course, not everyone responds to stress in the same way or has the same risk for health problems.