5 Surprising Ways Stress Messes With Your Health

5 Surprising Ways Stress Messes With Your Health

More than 40 percent of adults say their stress level has increased over the past five years. (C.J. Burton/Corbis)

Most people get that stress contributes to the most common —and most threatening —health problems, including biggies such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes. But what you might not realize is that recent research shows that stress affects nearly every system in the body, often in unexpected ways. 

Making matters worse, while a majority of adults admit that managing stress is important, 44 percent say they don’t do enough to keep it in check, according to an American Psychological Association survey. So if you’re looking for a reason to build de-stressing time into your day (exercise, meditation, regular massages), these five health concerns should provide plenty of motivation. 

1) It shrinks your brain

Stress may change your brain in ways that make you more susceptible to depression and addiction, according to research from Yale University. In one study, Yale researchers asked subjects about stressful past life events. They then compared the survey results with the subjects’ brain scans. People with a history of adversity had less gray matter in areas of the brain involved in stress, emotional regulation, and impulse control. The consequence? “We don’t really know for sure, but the idea is that you lose your ability to moderate how stress affects you and you become more reactive because you have less brain matter to respond,” said neuroscientist Tracy Bale, PhD, with Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Related: From Stressed to Depressed: Teen Girls Suffer More

2) It throws off your gut bacteria

Your gut is full of beneficial bacteria that help you metabolize nutrients and play a key role in your immune system. The number of bacteria in your gut is 10 times greater than the number of cells in your body.

“If you’re stressed, the nerves in your gut directly release neurotransmitters into that environment,” Bale told Yahoo Health. “That alters the environment in your gut and the diversity of the bacteria that are there, so different species can come in and deplete the beneficial bacteria.”

Stress is also believed to affect the barrier function of the intestinal wall. This so-called “leaky gut” may contribute to cardiovascular disease by encouraging plaque formation in blood vessels, some research suggests.

3) It triggers inflammation throughout your body

Inflammation is your immune system’s normal reaction to a threat to the body, such as an infection. But stress also triggers inflammation in low levels throughout your body, research shows. One study even found that everyday stressors such as mental math and public speaking can spike markers of inflammation in the blood. Prolonged stress can releases inflammatory chemicals that may contribute to plaque buildup in your arteries and insulin resistance (a risk factor for diabetes). In fact, chronic low levels of inflammation have been linked to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic diseases.

Related: How Stress Messes With Your Workout

4) It lowers your sperm count

A study released last year in the journal Fertility and Sterility examined the sperm of about 180 men, half of whom were going through in vitro fertilization for the first time. Compared to men with the lowest stress levels, guys who reported the highest stress had lower sperm counts and a reduced concentration of sperm in their semen. The stressed guys’ sperm were also more likely to be deformed, less mobile, or have breaks in their DNA. Stress decreases levels of the sex hormones testosterone and luteinizing hormone, which may lead to sperm changes, the researchers noted.

5) It makes you want junk food—lots of it

There’s a reason you reach for chocolate or chips in the middle of a crazy-busy day. Stress amplifies brain activation in areas responsible for motivation and reward in response to tasty treats. Translation: That candy bar is extra-satisfying after you meet a tight deadline.

“Evolution has programmed human brains, and most mammal’s brains, to be motivated to stock up on calorie-dense food if there’s at all a risk that there could be a famine,” Bale said. “Abundance of calories an ease of their availability is really a recent phenomenon.”

How can you control these stress responses? “You can’t really change how your body responds to stress, but you can prioritize the things that you know are healthy for you,” Bale told Yahoo Health. “For example, set aside time in your schedule to exercise early in the day. Give yourself permission to prioritize the things that are healthy for you instead of making them a bonus because everything else comes first.”

Related: Your Brain Is Wired to Favor Junk Food — 4 Ways to Override It

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