Health & Wellness

7 Things You Should Know About the Long-Term Effects of Stress

You know the troublesome short-term effects of stress: anxiety, depression, feelings of overwhelm, etc. But what if I told you that it’s the long-term effects of stress that you should be even more concerned about?

The truth of the matter is that there are two types of stress—psychological and physiological—and each can take a toll on your health in serious ways. The problem is that we’re so used to experiencing stress that that we tend to brush stress under the rug.

So, let’s take a look at the top seven most common long-term effects of stress and learn more about why this happens and, more importantly, what you can do to prevent or reverse these stress-induced problems and even improve your overall health.

 

Dealing with Stress

I have to tell you something: You deal with stress every single day of your life.

When you hear the word “stress,” perhaps you’re hit with memories of tightened deadlines at work or a tough time during your marriage or partnership. Maybe a loved one’s illness springs to mind.

These are all examples of situations that can cause intense psychological stress that tend to take time to recover from—and not just mentally and/or emotionally.

Just because you met your work deadline or your loved one’s illness subsided or your relationship made it through that rough patch doesn’t mean you’re free from the ramifications of those stressful situations.

Why? Because your body can’t distinguish the difference between these big, stressful events and the everyday stress we’re so accustomed to.

Your phone constating ringing or binging with emails? That causes internal stress. Reading about the rising COVID-19 cases in your state or city? That also causes internal stress. Trying to balance your work and home life? You guessed it—stress!

It’s all around us, and this constant state of stress adds up.

You may be surprised to learn that when you’re under stress, your adrenal glands have to produce a hormone known as cortisol (often referred to as the “stress hormone”) as well as other hormones.

Why? Well, you need these hormones to be able to respond to the stressful event. (For a great analogy and explanation of this process, click here.)

When you’re under constant stress, your adrenal glands are under a lot of pressure to constantly produce those hormones. Eventually, they become fatigued—and that’s when your problems really begin.

Adrenal fatigue is a syndrome, or a collection of signs and symptoms, that appears when your adrenal glands are doing a poor job managing hormones in response to chronic stress.

Because your adrenal glands basically function as your body’s control center (by regulating your digestion, cardiovascular system, neurological balance, blood sugar usage, sleep, and more), their inability to function properly comes with a variety of symptoms and long term health impacts.

At first, the symptoms of chronic stress or the resulting adrenal fatigue can present as everything from distraction to feeling tired to waking up a few times during the night.

Unfortunately, the early stages of adrenal fatigue are often missed because you feel great!  And because they’re missed, your stress continues.

Ultimately, you begin to experience some of the long-term effects of stress. Keep reading to learn what those are so you know how to recognize your body’s signals that your stress level is too high.

7 Long-Term Effects of Stress

Here are seven of the long-term effects of stress. Some of these may surprise you.

1. Memory loss

Believe it or not, chronic high cortisol levels have been shown to have neurotoxic effects over time. [1]

In fact, scientists have discovered that when your brain is constantly exposed to high amounts of cortisol and norepinephrine, it causes your hippocampus to shrink! And when your hippocampus shrinks, its ability to process and store memories is reduced. [2]

2. Weight gain

The sad reality here is that one of the most prevalent long-term effects of stress in our nation is weight gain. We’re a highly stressed nation and, as a result, we’re becoming overweight and obese. But here’s why.

When your cortisol is high, your insulin levels can also increase. This causes shifts in blood sugar and an onslaught of cravings for the high-calorie, sugar-filled foods known to cause weight gain.

But how strong is the link between stress and weight gain? Well, according to a 2015 study, just higher levels of stress alone can cause you to gain an extra 11 pounds per year! [3]

With almost 40 percent of American adults classified as obese and more than 71 percent of adults aged 20 classified as overweight or obese, we really need to prioritize our stress management.

3. Increased risk of cancer

I know—this sounds extreme, right? Perhaps almost unbelievable. But, sadly, it’s true: One of the most worrisome long-term effects of stress is that it actually increases your risk of developing cancer.

Here’s how: During times of heightened stress, your body tells your immune system to stay on alert. As a result, you may rarely get sick.

But as you stay in the high state of stress and adrenal fatigue progresses, your body remains in a state of inflammation, meaning your immune system begins to “miss” invaders, from more minor ones such as the flu to major ones such as cancer.

Keep in mind that cancer isn’t something you can catch; you have cancer in your body right now. But your immune system has it under control. However, if your immune system isn’t “paying attention” because it’s too busy dealing with your stress, it can miss the threat of cancer.

Here’s a great example: Did you know there’s a link between higher-stress jobs and women with breast cancer?

A 2013 study showed that those with prolonged deregulation of cortisol due to high-stress jobs had a higher risk of developing breast cancer. How much higher? Anywhere from 57 to 122 percent higher than women with less stressful jobs and lifestyles! [4]

4. High blood pressure

One of the most well-known long-term effects of stress is its impact on blood pressure. In fact, stress is arguably one of the biggest factors that affect blood pressure readings.

Consider the bear scenario that I’ve mentioned so many times. During times of short-term stress, you likely feel your heart beat a little faster. But what you can’t feel is that your blood vessels also narrow, causing your blood pressure to rise.

The pressure goes back down when the stress passes, but when you regularly experience bouts of stress—or when that stress never really goes away—your blood pressure remains elevated, which can damage your blood vessels, kidneys, and heart. [5]

So, how strongly does stress influence your blood pressure? Well, studies have shown that those who experience more psychological stress are 21 percent more likely to have high blood pressure! [6] Pretty staggering statistic, right?

5. Increased risk of heart disease and diabetes

As if we haven’t seen enough of the long-term effects of stress, one of the major ones is that stress increases your risk of both heart disease and diabetes!

A landmark study published in 2017 revealed that stress is a strong risk factor for type 2 diabetes. How strong? Well, the researchers discovered that moderate to high stress levels were associated with a 2.3-fold increase in the odds of developing type 2 diabetes in a three-year span. [7]

But, there’s more. The Normative Aging Study (which studies the effects of aging on numerous health conditions) showed that negative emotions associated with high stress levels are significant risk factors for heart disease.

In fact, when compared with people reporting no anxiety symptoms, those reporting two or more symptoms of anxiety had triple the risk of developing fatal coronary heart disease. They were also approximately six times more likely to experience a heart attack! [8]

Considering how heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for 1 in 4 deaths every year and that type 2 diabetes is becoming one of the leading epidemics in our country, perhaps it time to take our levels of stress more seriously. [9]

6. Higher likelihood of developing depression and/or anxiety

Above, we discussed how one of the long-term effects of stress is that it can result in memory loss. And this happens because of the effects stress has on your hippocampus.

Well, scientists have also discovered that when your hippocampus shrinks due to high levels of cortisol and norepinephrine, it causes further damage. Specifically, it inhibits your hippocampus’s ability to regulate your amygdala.

The amygdala is the part of your brain responsible for processing emotions such as fear, happiness, and more. And when it isn’t regulated properly, it results in increased anxiety.

Not only that, but there’s also a direct link between higher stress levels and depression.

According to a 2014 study of 201 participants, high amounts of work-related stress were associated with poorer overall health and a higher likelihood of experiencing not only anxiety but also depression and fatigue. [10]

Additionally, lack of workplace support, which results in increased stress, was associated with higher depression levels.

7. More skin problems (wrinkles, hives, etc.)

Finally, one of the more visible long-term effects of stress is its impact on your skin.

As I’ve mentioned before, there is a clear and direct link between your stress and skin. Due to its impact on your liver and digestive system, stress can cause acne breakouts and even dry skin.

But stress has been shown to increase histamine in the body as well. [11] In fact, it’s well-known that your body releases histamine anytime you’re in a heightened state of stress, and this often results in those itchy welts and hives we all hate! [12]

And there’s more … stress have even been shown to accelerate the aging process!

According to a 2009 review, stress impairs the quality of your collagen (the structural protein that keeps your skin plump and wrinkle-free). [13]

It’s kind of like a final kick, isn’t it? There really isn’t any area of your body (or mind) that stress doesn’t touch!

 

Long-term effects of stress - Dr. Pingel

 

4 Ways to Prevent or Reverse the Long-Term Effects of Stress

The great news here is that you have the power prevent or reverse many of the health concerns listed above. The answer? Support your body’s ability to handle stress by prioritizing your adrenal health.

Here are my top four ways to fight the long-term effects of stress by supporting your adrenal health.

1. Eat foods that support your adrenal glands.

Yep, there are foods known to support your adrenal health and, as a result, can help to prevent or reverse the long-term effects of stress we discussed above. Even better? They’re delicious foods that are easy to incorporate into your diet. Here are a few examples:

  • Nutrient-rich vegetables such as broccoli, dark green leafy vegetables,  squash, sweet potatoes, green beans, mushrooms, carrots, and more.
  • Delicious, flavorful fruits such as apples, bananas, strawberries, kiwis, rhubarb, pears, apricots, lemons, mangoes, oranges, blueberries, and more.
  • Healthy fats such as avocados, flax seeds, chia seeds, pecans, hazelnuts, walnuts, beans, cashews, almonds, peanuts, olives, and olive oil.
  • Gluten-free grains such as brown or wild rice, quinoa, oats, buckwheat, amaranth, and spelt.
  • Balanced amounts of protein, such as GMO-free fermented soy (tofu), beans, lentils, nuts, hemp seeds, chickpeas, wild-caught Pacific fish, organic eggs, organic chicken, and wild, organic game meats.

And don’t forget to drink plenty of water, since adrenal fatigue is known to cause dehydration!

2. Incorporate herbs and supplements

There are many readily available herbs and supplements that are known to help prevent or reverse the long-term effects of stress by supporting adrenal health. Here are a few:

To read more about how each of these herbs and supplements support adrenal health, click here.

3. Get moving each day.

If you haven’t exercised in a while, the good news is that you don’t have to go out and run a marathon in order to reverse or prevent the long-term effects of stress.

Research has shown that many different exercises can help decrease both psychological and physiological stress. These exercises include walking, running, dancing, bicycling, yoga, and more.

The key here is to pick something you enjoy, so that you will stick with it long-term.

4. Try doing some simple mind-body exercises.

A large majority of the external stress we experience comes from how we perceive the events in our life. And this is where the mind-body connection comes into play.

The truth of the matter here is that relieving your stress and supporting your adrenal health requires some emotional work as well. By prioritizing your state of mind, you’ll also benefit your physical health. And that makes this step the most important one.

Some of my favorite mind-body exercises that help to prevent or reverse the long-term effects of stress include deep breathing, meditation, and journaling.

Also, take a moment each day to remind yourself of your greatest attributes. A little self-love can go a long way in helping you to let go of the stress that can feel all-consuming.

 

Key Takeaways

  • There are two types of stress—psychological and physiological—and each can take a toll on your health in serious ways.
  • Some of the long-term effects of stress include: memory loss, weight gain, higher cancer risk, high blood pressure, greater risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, greater risk of developing anxiety and/or depression, and skin problems.
  • Some things you can do to improve your body’s stress response are: eating foods that support adrenal health, incorporating hers and supplements, exercising daily, and embracing the mind-body connection.

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