3 Sneaky Ways Stress Damages Your Health (and your DNA)

Major Life Stressors The Health Sciences Academy

by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
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Photo Credit: pixabay

Worry, tension, panic, mental exhaustion, anger, rumination, sadness, anxiety, fear, burnout…

When felt intensively or often, then you’re subject to ‘psychological stress’.

But, how many ways can psychological stress damage your health?

You may be shocked. In fact, you will be if you keep reading this article, as you’re going to get an education on the nasty impact that mental stress can have on your body in three particularly sneaky ways.

I’ll start by separating ‘normal’ stress from major life stressors and go onto explain how they can both end up damaging your health in some pretty alarming ways.

‘Normal’ stressors

‘Normal’ stressors are those daily crunches: meeting deadlines, paying your bills, commuting to work, juggling family responsibilities, couple communication challenges, finding time to exercise, planning dinner, and a lack of sleep, just to name a few.

They have a weight of their own, but by themselves, they don’t exactly squash you.

If they’re piled together, that’s another story.

Major life stressors

Then there are the bigger ones: chronic illness and disease, tragic accidents, having a loved one pass away, moving home, dealing with a bad boss/colleague/client, losing your job, family issues, personal relationship problems, planning a wedding, and even holidays! Stressors like these can increase your risk of illness.

Obviously, the answer is wide open depending on what’s going on in your life. However, it is clear that stress can trigger a tsunami of negative reactions and automatic responses that flood us at various levels.

Stress can affect us physically through stomach aches, tension in our shoulders, diarrhoea, cold sores and headaches. You’ve probably experienced at least one of those in the past – probably all of them.

What you may not be considering are the insidious ways stress damages your health — emotionally, cognitively, and even on a deeper systemic level.

Here are three significant ways stress damages your health. It might be a good idea to take an introspective tour. See if things make sense to you, and hone in on better awareness.

 

Major Life Stressors The Health Sciences Academy

 

1. Stress rips your gut apart

We’re not just talking about aches, ulcers and diarrhoea. That’s bad enough.

Our gastrointestinal track, otherwise known as the gut, is impacted at a much deeper level than simply digesting, assimilating and eliminating the food you eat.

When you’re stressed, three major things happen in your gut:

  1. nutrient absorption is decreased,
  2. oxygenation is diminished and
  3. blood flow slows as much as four times.

Chronic stress can slowly decimate gut health; especially if you’re cutting off oxygen and blood flow.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a kind of umbrella term for diarrhoea, discomfort, cramping, constipation, and bloating, affects up to one in five people in Britain.

Those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome often notice symptoms during stressful periods in their life. Even healthy people can have an escalation of these symptoms during stressful life events.

2. Stress weakens your immunity

If you experience short-term drips of stress, the body can usually deal with it. Sometimes there are even benefits of this sort of stress, as the fight-or-flight response can keep us mentally sharp by boosting our brain with an adrenaline rush.

However, long-term stress will play havoc with the immune system. Researcher Professor Sheldon Cohen, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, says: “The immune system’s ability to regulate inflammation predicts who will develop a cold, but more importantly it provides an explanation of how stress can promote disease. Because inflammation plays a role in many diseases such as cardiovascular, asthma and autoimmune disorders, this model suggests why stress impacts them as well.”

3. Stress prematurely ages you

Ever heard of telomeres?

Telomeres are the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes (DNA molecules) that affect how quickly your cells age. They are sort of like the plastic at the end of shoelaces, keeping the end of chromosomes tied.

Scientists have evidence that lifestyle changes to reduce stress can prevent the chromosomes in our cells from unravelling.

Unravelling is bad.

You see, stress shortens telomeres. And shorter telomeres impair the ability of cells to divide properly. This means cells either undergo death or continue to function poorly. And these hobbling-along cells will alter the balance of your body and the success of healthy ageing.

On average, women with high stress levels have shorter telomeres. That’s equivalent to at least one decade of additional ageing compared to low stress women.

That is an incredible, eye-opening statistic that links telomeres, stress, and premature ageing.

And if that wasn’t enough damage, telomere shortening is associated with many forms of cancer, brain stroke, vascular dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, and diabetes.

Conclusion

All three of these ways actually come full circle and tie in together.

Chronic stress decimates your gut health. This gut response produces inflammation. Inflammation in the body weakens your immune system. A weakened immune system will shorten telomeres. And shorter telomeres have been compared with a ‘bomb fuse’ that can detonate cancer and accelerate ageing.

You see how it works?

All these treacherous ways stress damages your health, your body cells and your well-being.

So, what can you do about it?

Simple things like tuning into a good song, deep reading, getting enough sleep, putting on a sweat every now and then, nurturing your body with superfoods, and even yoga and focused breathing can protect you, your mind, and your DNA from the negative effects of acute stress.

What do you think?

Have you suffered ill effects from stress? If so, in which ways? How did you deal with it?

Share your story in the comments section below, and pass this onto any stressed-out friends and family members so they’re aware of the damage.

NEW POLL: What stresses you out the most??:

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29 Comments

  • susan, nutrition coach

    Reply Reply August 11, 2014

    Stress can have a really negative effect on the body. A simple way to keep stress levels at bay is to try some deep breathing. Most of us when we are anxious take shallow breaths from the top part of our lungs, we need to relax and breath from our abdomens.
    Have a look at my deep breathing blog for a quick breathing exercise that will have you calm and relaxed in no time!
    http://www.nutrition-coach.co.uk/blog/deep-breathing/

  • Janet

    Reply Reply January 1, 2015

    I would say stress is one of the biggest causes of many chronic diseases of today. Our expectations are so much higher now. Deep breathing, thinking of the good things you have. Certainly help me to cope with stress.

    • sherel

      Reply Reply March 4, 2015

      Thank you Janet
      Being grateful for what you have instead of worrying about what you don’t have is clearly a stress release. From now on I will count my blessings.

  • Pearce

    Reply Reply January 1, 2015

    Meditation is another great way to alleviate stress. It takes a daily practice to work but indeed works well. But the ultimate way to deal with stress is to remove the cause of your stress.

    • AnnaR

      Reply Reply February 3, 2015

      so I need to wait until my toddler grows up :D to remove the cause :) :P

      • sherel

        Reply Reply March 4, 2015

        LOL,
        AnnaR
        I think you’d better learn to handle a toddlers stress now. I have a teenager whose driving me crazy. I wish he were a toddler again. LOL

  • Rachel

    Reply Reply February 9, 2015

    As a colleague of mine says – stress is not the stressor, your response to it is. We can all learn to manage our stress. At Discover Wellbeing we’re about to release a free online stress management session to teach the really basic tools and techniques that you can implement right away. discoverwellbeing.org/positivevibes It will include a clinical hypnotherapy download that will trigger the “relaxation response” that Alex refers to.

    • sherel

      Reply Reply March 4, 2015

      Rachel
      I look forward to your stress management session, and will tell my family and friends about it.
      Thanks

      • mel

        Reply Reply October 11, 2015

        Hi Rachel ,Yes stress can be made worse by how you react to it and the tools you mention will be very beneficial. I have many tools in my tool box, but some elements of ones life can feel totally out of your control, add a toxic enviroment, bad boss, lack of support from colleges, overwhelming workload and the load outweighs the resilient factors being deployed and on somatic levels your body remains switched on whether your thinking or not!!
        we need to be mind-full of not over simplifying the clients experiences.
        for .g a woman and child who is living in a domestic violence situation will have their stress response on all the time ,even long after the trauma, deep breathing alone wouldn’t resolve the physical ,mental ,emotional and spiritual overwhelm that they will experience. Thankfully my home is a sanctuary, I practice yoga, have developed fairly good eating habits and im working on tackling the work issues, but the load is obvious to me.Over the long term the detrimental affect of stress can be huge. Some of us, are at risk of burnout . Hence why im very interested to be doing the course here.

  • Lisa

    Reply Reply March 5, 2015

    I went through an intense period of stress a few years ago, it was horrible and all I felt was constant fear and anxiety. I took steps to heal myself through correct nutrition, magnesium supplements, rhodolia, meditation , exercise and acupuncture. I can honestly say all those things have helped immensely although I now suffer with gall bladder pain despite following a strict diet and I am convinced it has been caused by years of intense stress.

    • mel

      Reply Reply October 11, 2015

      Hi Lisa

      very interesting comment, im having the same trouble in my liver gallblader area

      hope your health continues to improve

  • Luckisha

    Reply Reply April 7, 2015

    We put so much expectation on ourselves as well as those we think other have of us. Everything is happen now. Where are we really hurrying up to?

  • Diane

    Reply Reply April 24, 2015

    Stress has been a chronic condition for me. I find that regular exercise and staying busy help me to stay focused. I’m trying to eat better and have taken supplements for years. It seems to help.

  • sarah

    Reply Reply May 16, 2015

    stress, fear anxiety has a big effect on life, to the point were u don’t even want to leave the house and normal tasks are impossible to even comprehend let alone doing, i guess fear of being seen as weak or not being strong admitting im not superwomen made me have to feel like i had to be everything and expectations i gave myself were unreachable and took me a while to except that, i didn’t really talk about it and could hide this well from others as i find talking feelings emotions difficult and i always depend on myself so hard to let people in, i found just general reading through Internet on random topics and did a few courses on line just to take my mind off the stress as exercise was impossible i have always worked out gone for runs i generally love it and after a couple of years i finally got back into it i still don’t know were the stress started or how it got so bad so quickly maybe i never noticed it and sometimes u push ourselves and ur body makes u deal i guess articles and people that kinda get what u feel and just being able to share and support helps even if u don’t really talk or go into details just knowing that the topic is spoke about and people leaving helpful info is always a relief as its hard to know were to start to understanding what u actually think feel or even ask for help or to get help.

  • gary

    Reply Reply June 9, 2015

    i strongly agree with the article, stress is a major factor of many conditions, and illnesses. I suffered from IBS and it was diagnosed as an eating disorder…eating the wrong foods for my system back in the 90s. Now i know it was stress induced due to my job at the time.

    A simple approach to stress is learning how to let go, in the sense of controlling and reducing daily stresses; family, work, home bills, driving to work, or anything that induces stress.

    Yoga is one of the paths that taught me to stay stress free, ridding the mind and body of the daily life stresses. May work for you but I say try everything, theres nothing to lose :-)

  • Rebecca Fuller

    Reply Reply July 13, 2015

    This is more of a question.
    Whilst I certainly agree with the information here on stress and illness. My question is how do small children and babies develop such devastating chronic diseases? Are they the 5 % that inherit them through their genes? Or is it more complicated than that?
    Thanks :)

    • Hi Rebecca – Good question, and it certainly is complicated :-) Some may inherit a condition, while others may be affected by environmental triggers, such as maternal diet during pregnancy, toxin exposure (maternal or after birth), stress levels during pregnancy, diet after birth, lack of nurturing by the mother (associated with higher anxiety), physical activity level, housing conditions, sleep, and so on. You can also have a combination of both: nature (genes) and nurture (epigenetics). We recently published a Science Report with the latest on nutrition genetics specifically: https://thehealthsciencesacademy.org/science-reports/food-to-dna/

  • minakhshi Dodia

    Reply Reply September 26, 2015

    very informative

  • Charlotte Reay

    Reply Reply October 12, 2015

    I’m going through a divorce at the moment after 35 yrs i found out that my husband had been living a double life for over 20 yrs. He didn’t want the divorce but I couldn’t go on living the way we were cause he didn’t treat me right in any case. He never took me out and used to go out 7days a week. Anyway. it’s now been going on for a year and we’re no way foreward. He hasn’t given me a penny since October of last year. He’s worked for cash (he’s a builder and can hide what he makes) and doesn’t seem to want to move. I’ at my wits end. My health has deteriorated. I suffer from fibromyalgia and it seems to have made it worse. My nutrition has suffered as well as with the stress lelvels being so high you don’t feel like eating most days and I’m sad to say I’m back to smoking again although I’m trying to kick the habit again. This is all very hard for me to say but you’ve got to live it to be able to appreciate the goings on of the situation. When your stomach ties in knots when you hear the door open and he comes in. We don’t speak. Yes I agree that stress has quite a lot to do with what happens in our lives. I’m one of such cases. But and a theres a big but i’m waiting for that day when I’m free to start my life again on a positive side and hopefully renew all my positive energy!!!!

    • Gabrielle Le Roux

      Reply Reply October 15, 2015

      Hi Charlotte!

      Wow – you certainly have been through a lot and i feel drawn to say something to you, even though i am a stranger.

      I am sorry to hear all of these incredibly difficult challenges that you have faced and i can’t imagine what a toll it has taken on you physically, mentally and emotionally. I see you are waiting for the better day..Well, even though you may feel you are in the thick of things, I am so glad to see that you realise there is an expiration date on the hardship you are experiencing. It is also worth noting how much you have survived, even if you’ve picked up a few bruises along the way, and you need to pull the belief of ‘one day’ to being here now, tomorrow. I genuinely believe we are pushed, and often allow ourselves to continue being pushed along the hard road until we reach a point to say enough is enough. Some people need more time than others, and some need a little bit more help. But we all have it in us. You realise that there is a better, and from what you have said i have no doubt that you have the strength to make the hard decision to take back control in your life. Once you do this and you regain control of your will and your mind, i am convinced that you will be able to take control back of your diet and your health. And i believe you know you have it in you. Best of luck to you Charlotte, and i hope you are able to dig deep and grab hold of that strength that i know you have. x

  • Charlotte

    Reply Reply October 19, 2015

    Thanks for your lovely response. It was much appreciated and it meant a lot that someone out there knows what I’m going through. everybody tells me I’m a strong person and I can do this. All I can say is I hope I am as strong as they make me out to be. Stress can cause all sorts in your life and with me with my fyromyalgia it found it’s perfect point—-through pain. All I can do is plan ahead and hopefully this will be all over soon and then my life will start again, my aches and pains will lessen and I will be able to start leading a normal life again eating good food and thus regaining my health. Thanks again for the pep talk.

  • Georgina

    Reply Reply January 13, 2016

    I’m really sorry to hear in the previous comments of what the other students have been experiencing, hey pep talks are fab ;0), nothing like having someone there with you to listen and even sometimes understand. From my own experience I definitely know my health has worsened since I lived through certain stressful events. What can I say, except that to get to the stage where you feel ready to try and improve you health and situation, you have to first ride through the worst of the event. As anyone who knows, at the height of being stressed things can be so overwhelming and consuming, that your health is usually the last on your agenda of priorities. However the more awareness is raised of how to deal with certain life stresses in general, might just stop some people escalate their anxiety and fear, and eventually protect their telomeres from shortening.

  • Fiona Hook

    Reply Reply March 18, 2016

    Exposure to microwave radiation from wireless technologies

  • Juhana Harju

    Reply Reply March 19, 2016

    Microwave radiation of wireless technology has been shown to cause DNA strand breaks in several studies.

  • nancy

    Reply Reply July 7, 2016

    A great way to relieve stress and add energy is to spend some time outdoors
    being out in nature provides many health benefits especially if combined with physical activity

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