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Stress Can Make You Sick, Literally


Jessica Kelner, D.O. - July 2, 2018

What is stress anyway? 
Surely we have all tossed this term around in our daily life, but do you really know what stress does to your body?  
 
Stress is defined as "a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances." The body wants to maintain a "status quo", which we call "homeostasis".  Anything that diverts us from maintaining this balance is defined as a "stressor".  Stress is actually a normal coping mechanism of the body, that when experienced over a short period of time in a young, healthy person, doesn't cause any harm to the body.  But when stress is experienced in someone not so young and less than healthy, over a longer period of time, it can cause detrimental effects.  
 
It’s probably safe to say that almost every adult experiences "stress" on routine basis.  
 
Over time, stress can lead to negative changes in the body that contribute to lack of sleep, hormonal changes, gut issues, and the breakdown of our muscles and joints.  
 
Have you ever heard of "cortisol" the "stress" hormone? Cortisol has gotten a bad reputation. Your body actually needs a certain level of cortisol for you to feel healthy and happy. It increases blood sugar, suppresses your immune system, and helps to metabolize fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Doesn’t sound all that bad does it? In the short term, it is pretty awesome to have around. In the long term, cortisol causes your body to start breaking down protein (your muscles) for energy. It also inhibits your body from making new bone, which can lead to the weakening of bones in osteoporosis.  Cortisol also down regulates the synthesis of collagen. Collagen is the structural support tissue in all of your joints, tendons, and ligaments (so this is really bad).  Without being able to make new collagen, your body won't be able to repair injuries to tissues such as tendons and ligaments. Over time, this can lead to worsening of the injury, even if it started out small.
 
Additionally, to put the icing on the cake, long term elevations of cortisol have been shown to delay healing time.  This can lead to further damage and injury. Now this is sounding more like the "cortisol" we all have heard of. 
 
Excessive cortisol over long periods of time can cause your body to become depleted of adrenal hormones, leading to feeling fatigued all of the time. This is called "adrenal fatigue". Essentially, the adrenal glands become worn out. 
 
Is all "stress" bad for you? 
There are other kinds of "stress" that the body experiences. There is physical stress.  It is exactly what it sounds like; It is caused by physical exertion, manual labor, or exercise. Physical stress isn’t always a bad kind of stress.  As long as your body isn’t over stressed, daily exercise can be a good form of stress. The stress on your bones from walking/jogging or the muscle pulling on your bones when you lift heavy objects actually helps your body make new bone and keeps them strong. 
 
Too much of anything can cause problems.
Overexercising may not be so good for you either. 
I have had many patients that have exercised so much, their body shuts down on them, making them not be able to function anymore and accomplish their daily life activities.  They may have had an injury that wouldn't heal and kept exercising through it.  Not only could they not compete at their sport anymore, but often they have associated "adrenal fatigue", where they have difficulty thinking clearly and have very little energy.  Fortunately, they were all able to make complete recoveries with treatment with intracellular nutrition, Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment and Regenerative Medicine treatments. 
 
Stress can make you sick.
Stress can also come in the form of a cold or a virus. High cortisol levels in the body (baseline of high stress), make you more at risk for getting sick with a virus as well as more likely to shed the virus for a longer period of time.   When you get sick with a viral infection, the virus starts to use up your body's resources while it initiates your immune system to respond to its presence.  Imagine asking the whole country's military troops to get ready for battle at a moments notice.  That is similar to what your body goes through when exposed to a viral threat.  Ok, maybe it is asking a state's military troops to get ready for battle, but you get the point.  This can be an enormous stressor on the body which can leave you feeling very run down and tired.  
 
While in the short term, "stress" can be a very helpful mechanism that our body experiences to assist us to perform at our best when we are under pressure.  Long term "stress" can cause harm to  the body that may lead to serious long term health consequences.  So, do yourself a favor; try to balance out your stress with things that are known to keep you healthy and lower your stress.  You can do this by incorporating daily meditation and daily exercise into your routine.  Make sure to get enough sleep at night, drink plenty of water and eat a healthy, balanced diet so your body can deal with life's daily challenges without being so "stressed".