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Can Stress Really Make Us Sick?

By Dr. Melissa E. Clarke 

What is health? A check-up with your doctor often focuses on making sure we are not sick – checking our blood pressures, mammograms, pap smears and colonoscopies. These are all excellent things we must keep on top of, but do not always necessarily focus on “health”. You can have all good check-up results but still not be healthy. That is because health, or wholeness, is really not just a physical concern; it starts with something only we can do for ourselves – focusing on well-being, both mentally and emotionally, which in turn leads to promoting a healthy body.

“Feeling stressed” however, makes the immune system not healthy. Feeling stressed sets off a its own set of hormones and messenger chemicals that gets 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, the intestines slow down, and the immune system shuts off – just to name a few. This system works great when there is real physical danger – 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, deadlines. You know the drill. This constant state of being stressed often leads to the common ailments we experience. Here are just 5 common ways this happens:

1. Headaches
With stress, certain hormones set off a series 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 Flus
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 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.

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