In short bursts, stress can be a really good thing, helping you meet a work deadline or providing a thrill as you bike down a mountain. But when it sticks around for too long, keeping your body chronically on high alert, stress becomes problematic.
In fact, chronic stress affects everything from the chemicals in your brain to your nervous, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal systems, explains psychiatrist Dr. Simon Faynboym, M.D., medical director at Neuro Wellness Spa. So all those stress-management strategies out there? Your overall health and longevity actually depend on them!
If you’ve got achy shoulders, keep gaining weight, and can’t seem to sleep, you’re probably carrying too much stress. Over time, these inconveniences can snowball into much bigger issues. Ahead, medical experts break down how excess stress can affect your body over time.
1. Brain Fog and Memory Problems
Chronic stress can lead to various functional and structural changes in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that plays a major role in learning and memory, points out Dr. Revée Barbour, N.D., M.S., a naturopathic and functional medicine doctor based in Sacramento. Some of these stress-related changes could include decreased brain mass and neuron dysfunction, which can lead to brain fog and memory loss, she explains.
Read More: 9 Daily Habits That Mess With Your Focus
Research suggests that glucocorticosteroids, the hormones produced we experience stress, can diffuse through the blood-brain barrier and cause long-term effects on cognitive function (think learning, decision making, attention, and judgment).
2. Gut Issues Like Irritable Bowel Syndrome
You’ve probably experienced the short-term impacts stress has on your digestive system, whether it’s hardcore cravings or the sudden urge to make a beeline for the bathroom. In the long run, prolonged stress can take a real toll on your gut.
“Stress can alter the gut microbiome and digestive function, which may lead to chronic GI disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome,” Barbour says. According to The Cleveland Clinic, people with emotional stress, tension, or anxiety face a greater risk of both developing IBS and experiencing worsening symptoms of existing IBS. (These symptoms typically include constipation, diarrhea, gas, and bloating.)
Researchers believe this link is, at least in part, due to the fact that stress affects the movement of the GI tract—in this case, the large intestine.
3. Potential Cancer Growth
The relationship between stress and cancer is of major interest among scientists. And though studies have had varying results and can not yet clearly identify a definitive connection, per the National Cancer Institute (NCI), experts believe there’s something there.
For example, researchers have found that when the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis— which plays a key role in the body’s stress response—is “persistently activated,” it probably impairs immune responses and contributes to the development and progression of some cancers.
Also, according to the NCI, studies in animals and lab-grown human cancer cells show that chronic stress may cause cancer to progress and metastasize, or spread to other parts of the body. They also note that the glucocorticoids produced in response to stress may resist chemotherapy and inhibit tumor cell death (called apoptosis). These stress hormones might also prevent the immune system from recognizing and attacking cancer cells.
4. Dental Problems
Stress can weaken the immune system, making it more difficult for the body to fight off infections, including those affecting the gums, says dentist Jennifer Silver, D.D.S., owner of Macleod Trail Dental in Alberta. Gum disease (a.k.a. periodontal disease) makes your gums inflamed and over time can damage the soft tissue around your teeth, she explains. If you leave it untreated, it wears away at the bones that support your teeth, and they can become loose or even fall out.
Stress can also lead to bruxism, in which you persistently grind or clench your teeth (usually unconsciously). “Bruxism can result in tooth wear, fractures, jaw pain, and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders,” Silver says.
5. Fertility Issues
Women may notice that when they’re stressed to the max, their menstrual cycle gets thrown off or that they even skip a period. According to board-certified reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Abby C. Eblen, M.D., of the Nashville Fertility Center, stress impacts the reproductive system by stopping a woman from releasing an egg each month. “This occurs because the pituitary gland stops producing hormones that stimulate the production of estrogen and progesterone,” she says.
Stress can also affect semen quality. Specifically, psychological stress impacts the concentration of sperm, as well as its ability to fertilize an egg, according to research published in the journal Fertility and Sterility. Researchers don’t fully understand why stress affects semen quality but theorize that the release of glucocorticoids could influence testosterone levels, which then impact sperm production.
6. Chronic Pain
Stress plays a major role in chronic pain, according to naturopathic doctor and chiropractor Dr. Jason Winkelmann, N.D., D.C., of True Health Natural Pain Center in Colorado.
One reason for this is that stress causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol, which then increases the amount of glucose in your bloodstream so that you can either fight or flee from whatever stress your body believes you’ve encountered, Winkelmann explains. The issue here: “Our stressors are much less life-threatening than those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, so we do not use this excess glucose,” he says. “As such, it becomes very inflammatory, causing and worsening pain by damaging joints and hyper-sensitizing nerves to pain-inducing chemicals.”
Researchers suggest that there are a number of conceptual and physiological overlaps between stress and pain, which is why the two often go hand-in-hand.