Stress and your health: What’s really going on?

We are living in a high-stress world. Unfortunately, it seems that daily we turn on the television and see horrible things happening, expanding far beyond we stress in our personal lives.

Although a small dose of stress and experiencing the classic ‘stress response” is good for you, regularly feeling pressure and anxiety has lasting negative effects on your health. Non-stop hassle can lead to a catalogue of health problems, from obesity and acne to something much more serious like heart disease.

A budding field of medical study known as psychoneuroendoimmunology (PNEI) is exploring the links between what goes on in our nervous systems and the development of illness.

What’s going on in there?

When your body senses danger, it triggers a stress response that starts in your brain’s hypothalamus gland, which sends signals to the adrenals (two glands that sit on top of the kidneys) to release stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenalin and noradrenalin. These raise blood pressure and give your body a hit of glucose to help you outrun the immediate danger. When our cortisol is too high for too long, it can lead to physical and mental health problems in many areas of our bodies.

Stress and Cancer

There are two main branches of your immune system: daytime immunity, which targets potential infections such as germs picked up on public transport; and night-time immunity, which releases natural killer cells that fight more covert invaders, such as cancer cells. A 2016 review published in the journal Integrated Cancer Therapy found that elevated cortisol was the most common biomarker found in breast cancer patients and concluded that mindfulness, breathing and stretching techniques could offer potential improvement in immune activity in survivors.

Fat, Cravings and Diet

If you crave fatty or sweet foods under stress, you’re not alone; repeated studies show how stressed-out rats make bad food choices. “High cortisol can affect the transmission of dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter linked to our reward system,” says Dr Mondelli. “That makes us more susceptible to seek rewards by eating more and leads to increased cravings.”

Cortisol also inhibits the breaking down of fat; storing it to fight a future threat would once have been essential from an evolutionary perspective.


When our bodies are under stress, they produce pro-inflammatory cytokines, immune factors that fight infections. When these cytokines are elevated over a period of time, inflammation can result and affect not only our bodies’ ability to fight infection, its risk of heart disease and cancer, but also our brains. “Inflammation can decrease the number of neuron cells in our brains and affect the way they network with each other and the way we memorize things.” says Dr. Laura Phipps, of Alzheimer’s Research UK .

Heart Disease

During the stress response, your breathing increases and heart beats faster in an effort to pump more oxygen and blood to your muscles, preparing it for fight or flight. Stress hormones also cause your blood vessels to constrict and raise your blood pressure. “Elevated stress hormones over time lead to inflammation that damages the internal lining of the blood vessels which can facilitate the production of artherosclerotic plaques that clog up the arteries, increasing risk of heart attack,” Dr. Valeria Mondelli, senior lecturer in psychological medicine at King’s College London.

Stress and your skin

Pimples or skin-flaking that flares up when you’re stressed are not your imagination, says Dr. Anthony Bewley, consultant dermatologist at Bart’s Hospital Trust, London. In fact, he’s seen a rise in adult onset acne in stressed-out, middle-aged women. “Stress not only delays wound healing, stress hormones also lead to the production of more oil in the skin and the blocking of hair follicles that lead to acne,” Dr. Bewley explains.


Be sure to take time for yourself and relax. Most things that bring us stress, day to day, are resolvable and not the end of the world.  Taking the time to exercise, eat right and keeping an organized schedule will help to manage your time and keep you in the right state of mind for a happy and successful healthy life.